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Spurs out-gun pesky Hornets to win seventh straight

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Kawhi Leonard scores 30 to keep them undefeated on the road

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Game 15, at Charlotte: Spurs 119, Hornets 114 Rec: 12-3

1st in Southwest Division, 3rd in Western Conference Streak: W-7

I think we can all agree that was one weird basketball game the Spurs were fortunate enough to win Wednesday night. When I was doing my preseason previews, I expressed concern that the Hornets would really miss Jeremy Lin and Al Jefferson and struggle mightily to score. I figured Nicolas Batum would be satisfied after scoring a max contract, Kemba Walker’s scoring would increase but his efficiency would plummet, and they would have trouble getting consistent production from anyone else. So of course the Hornets entered the game ninth in the league in scoring (105.4 points-per-game), seventh in three-pointers (10.7 per game) and 12th in Offensive Rating, per NBA.com’s Stats Index.

Walker is indeed scoring a career-high 24.7 points-per-game, only his shooting percentages are by far the best of his career too. He’s playing at an All-Star level so far and hasn’t been bothered by the extra attention opponents are paying him at all. Meanwhile, Batum hasn’t rested on his laurels with his new deal. He’s been terrific as a jack-of-all-trades second banana. Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky have raised their games in Jefferson’s absence and even Marco Belinelli –whose acquisition in the off-season was roundly panned by critics—has helped them, shooting 48 percent from downtown.

In short, the Hornets look like a fairly solid club, a playoff team for certain, and if anything it’s on defense where they’ve been a little disappointing, given their personnel and Steve Clifford coaching ‘em up. I haven’t watched much of them so far, but you’d think with Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams on the perimeter and Roy Hibbert protecting the rim, they’d be a top-five defense. Instead they rank 10th in defensive rating, have lost three in a row and allowed 119 at home to a Spurs team that plays at the fourth-slowest pace in the league.

Maybe the problem is they’ve just been unlucky enough to run into some hot-shooting individual performances; that they haven’t been much at fault in process but dudes have just hit some shots against them. Because that was mostly the case against San Antonio. Objectively speaking, the Spurs had no business being in that game, much less winning it.

Kawhi Leonard was fantastic, obviously. He canned a career-high 14 field goals in 21 attempts, and the degree of difficulty on them seemingly kept increasing throughout the game. He made a reverse floater over Hibbert, a pull-up three in Kaminsky’s grill, turnaround jumpers over a helpless MKG, up-and-unders against Batum, a ridiculous one-handed and-1 banker from about 13 feet while his entire left side was being yanked down, step-backs, fade-ways, pull-up jumpers, follow dunks, you name it.

If Leonard was merely great instead of otherworldly, the Spurs lose. If Danny Green doesn’t score a season-high 16, including two money threes in the fourth quarter, they lose. If Davis Bertans shoots like Davis Love III –seriously about the only thing the bench did right all game was pass it to the young Latvian—they lose. But they all happened to be nuclear tonight and the Hornets, playing defense that was by no means air-tight but not slipshod enough to warrant surrendering 119, were unlucky losers but losers all the same.

I can’t imagine Gregg Popovich was pleased by the performance. About the only fundamental thing the Spurs did well was not turn it over. Their interior defense was abysmal, especially from Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, neither of whom were at all interested in contesting anything or moving laterally. Bertans and David Lee at least blocked a couple shots, but they too were often woefully out of position. The Spurs surrendered 56 points in the paint, 26 second chance points, allowed the Hornets to shoot 50.6 percent from the floor and 55 percent (11-of-20) from three.

If you’ve been wondering why Leonard’s defensive numbers look so bad so far this season (a 106.0 Defensive Rating, worst of any rotation player on the club except Tony Parker) look no further than this game for evidence. He’s going haywire playing alongside three mediocre or worse defenders all the time, including all the bigs, none of whom protect the basket. Leonard’s anticipating the others’ mistakes, trying to cover for everyone, and in turn he’s getting sucked in and leaving shooters open or losing guys on backdoor cuts with his attention elsewhere. It’s safe to say he misses Tim Duncan more than anyone on the roster, but alas The Golden God isn’t coming back, so he’ll have to settle for welcoming Dewayne Dedmon back.

That’s going to be a dilemma in its own right, by the way. The one good thing about Dedmon’s knee sprain is that it opened up some minutes for Bertans, and the kid’s made the most of it, showing a sniper’s range and impressive hops. Lee’s playing well enough offensively so I don’t think his rotation spot will be in peril anytime soon, but Bertans has earned minutes too. What’s a coach to do?

Well, you may have noticed that both Jonathon Simmons and Kyle Anderson have been producing next to nothing the past handful of games. Actually, pretty much all season in Anderson’s case. Simmons does create some for others –I was impressed with his decision making to feed Bertans on the fast break for an easy dunk rather than trying what would’ve been a contested layup—but he’s been unable to find lanes to the basket and looks oddly tentative out there lately. I’m wondering if Pop will experiment with giving Bertans some minutes at the backup three, eschewing both Simmons and Anderson altogether. It probably won’t happen. Bertans’ whole value may be his ability to space the floor as a stretch-four. But if we’re talking about who the Spurs’ ten most valuable players are right this minute, fully half of them are “bigs” as ironic as that sounds.

So it goes. A game that was 103-102 with 2:53 remaining somehow ended 119-114 in regulation. Parker, who up to that point had contributed almost nil, hit a huge three with 22.2 seconds to go and then iced the game with four freebies. The Spurs are unblemished in eight road games, tying a franchise record. They looked more like the Warriors in winning tonight than the Spurs, and while that wasn’t meant to be a compliment, they’re pretty good too. I’ll take them playing badly in a win any day over them playing well in a loss, and maybe that’s the best takeaway we can have about the Spurs: I’m not sure they can play well and lose.

Up Next: Friday, at Boston Celtics (9-6)

The Spurs road streak will be soundly tested at Boston, winners of three straight and of the best clubs the East has to offer. They destroyed the Nets Wednesday. They struggled earlier in the year with Al Horford and Jae Crowder missing time due to injuries, but they’ve both returned and are working their way back to form. Isaiah Thomas isn’t shooting very well overall, but he’s getting to the line a lot and Avery Bradley’s been very good for them. They’re deep and will be scary good once everything clicks. The Spurs might be catching them at the right time, though I’m curious what the rotation will be like on the front end of a back-to-back. I’m thinking Gasol and Manu Ginobili will be sitting out one of these next two, and they’ve both looked fatigued of late.