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Spurs resemble their old selves in win over Nets

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Leonard looked his best yet, the Grandpa Juice flowed, and the Spurs gave fans a late Christmas gift, playing with a full squad for the first time this season.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

In many ways, the Spurs’ 109-97 win over the Brooklyn Nets went as expected.

For one the 12-21 Nets, coming in as 11-point underdogs and having not won a game in the Alamo City since Game 2 of the 2003 NBA Finals, lost. They kept things close before San Antonio (who sports a +0.1 net rating in first halves and a +7.8 net rating in second halves) pulled away, thanks in part to an 11-0 run midway through the third quarter.

The night also featured:

Yet one thing gave Tuesday’s win a distinctly unfamiliar feel: the Spurs, finally, had every player cleared to suit up. For a team that’s rolled out 13 different starting lineups and had only three guys appear in all 35 games, it was an encouraging sight.

Even more encouraging: de-oxidizing superstar Kawhi Leonard had his best performance yet since returning from injury, scoring a season-high 21 points in a season-high 26 minutes of play, while notching a game-high +18 plus/minus. The Klaw had his full bag of tricks on display in his fifth game back, disrupting things defensively, taking his man off the dribble, and coolly knocking down pull-up jumpers. Pop spoke about Leonard’s progress afterwards:

“Every game we see a little bit more rust go off, the hesitation goes away. He’s trying to fit in; you know, his game, the team game. [He’s] feeling comfortable with the ball... so every game is a little bit better.

The rust is indeed wearing off, perhaps most visibly in how Leonard gets to the rim and reacts to contact. While he was, understandably, apprehensive earlier on, you could see his confidence returning whenever he went Kawheels Up on Tuesday.

The offense occasionally stalls when Leonard touches the ball, and that’s OK right now. These reps are more about him regaining his bounce and remembering what he’s able to do, and sometimes that means him looking off an open Gasol, spotting up for three or forcing up a shot in isolation. It’s all part of the troubleshooting process.

Leonard’s night would seem to affirm that the process is trending in the right direction. The most positive sign might be his return late in the fourth quarter, much to the chagrin of Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, to help the Spurs put the game away.

While he’s taking a measured, deliberate approach to rediscovering his form, one teammate continues to show flashes of his heyday in less predictable ways.

At 40, Ginobili continues to rail against expectations. In that way, he has always been both the mindful embodiment of the Spurs Way and the brazen antithesis to its detached, hyper-efficient execution. He is the best kind of basketball paradox.

With he and Parker sustaining, Aldridge and Gasol clicking, and Leonard slowly but surely regaining his elite status, it’s hard to know where to set expectations for a San Antonio team that somehow sits just 3.5 games out of the number-one spot. But with everyone finally on the mend (knock on wood), they can start figuring it out.


Some final thoughts...

Another solid night for the new twin towers

Taking advantage of an undersized Nets team, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol combined for 35 points, 21 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. Both have been stellar this year, and you might be hard-pressed to list too many teams with better frontcourts than the one San Antonio will have with a healthy Leonard joining them.

Parker, still looking great

14 points on 6-of-10 shooting, and a handful of effortless drives into the lane — Parker has been a much-needed stabilizing presence at the point-guard position, and his incredible comeback continued on Tuesday. Among his impressive numbers: he has a 53.8 eFG%, the most efficient shooting numbers since his 05-06 season.

One very unconventional lineup

“We’re going through a time to try and get everyone on the same page, with minute restrictions and all that,” began Patty Mills after the game. “It’s obviously not the rotations I think that will be in a playoff situation, for example, but we’re going through that process of making sure guys — health is first — so however long that’ll be, we’ll get through it.”

Patty’s right — the rotations, and lineups, have been far from ideal. But they have been interesting. In the third quarter against Brooklyn, we were, for two very weird minutes, treated to a Aldridge-Ginobili-Murray-Mills-Forbes group, which ostensibly had 6’5’’, 40-year-old Manu at power forward. (For what it’s worth, the lineup sported a 166.7 offensive rating and 166.0 defensive rating, both of which seem entirely sustainable.)

Better days ahead for Patty

One look at Mills’ numbers and you’ll see that he is probably one of the victims of San Antonio’s inconsistent rotations that he references above. Coming into tonight, he had been sporting a 13.2 PER, his second-lowest as a Spur, and the team has a +5.4 net rating with him off the floor, and a +2.0 net rating with him on it.

My prediction: those stats improve with the team finding some consistency in its rotations, with Leonard drawing extra defensive attention, and with Mills settling into his usual role as a secondary creator and off-ball assassin.

Does anyone sit on Thursday?

Less than 48 hours after this game, the Spurs host the Knicks. Seemingly neither Leonard or Parker have been cleared for back-to-backs, but we’ll see if both of them, along with Green (still nursing a groin injury), suit up. Pop may want to bottle them up for the team’s upcoming three-game road trip.