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Whether Kawhi’s expected return will change the Spurs’ momentum

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Pop continues to play with line-ups as marquee players are sidelined.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at San Antonio Spurs Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to In The Bonus, Pounding the Rock’s weekly roundtable discussion focused on the Spurs and their final run towards the postseason. This week, contributors Mark Barrington, Jesus Gomez, Marilyn Dubinski, Bruno Passos, and Jeph Duarte continue to attempt to dissect a Kawhi Leonard comeback.

In the meantime, there are late game breakdowns against the Pelicans and Lakers to analyze, the ever-evolving starting line-up to ponder, and the curious case of missing Bryn Forbes to speculate.

In addition, the Spurs had maintained an even record with Golden State since the Warriors started their reign of terror in 2015. This season, San Antonio has dropped the previous two contests. With two final meetings in as many weeks, what are the Spurs to do to keep the champions in check?

Questions have been posted Sunday night and do not include last night’s home game against the Memphis Grizzlies. Check back next Tuesday for questions concerning Memphis and the road trip involving Golden State, Oklahoma City, and Houston.

Assuming Kawhi Leonard returns mid-March, will there be enough time to get him firing on all cylinders with the Spurs?

Mark Barrington: I used the ‘indubitably’ card last week, so I have to actually answer this. The answer is yes. There will be 18 games in the season left if he returns when the rumor indicated he would return (March 8) and if he plays in more than half of those, he’ll shake off enough rust to be a difference-maker. It remains to be seen whether he can play at full speed. If he’s 50% Kawhi, like he was earlier this season, it won’t improve the team that much, but if he’s feeling good, he might help the team at least give their first round opponent a good fight.

Jesus Gomez: I don’t think we’ll see the real Kawhi this season, no matter when he returns. Even if he’s fully healthy, he’ll have to shake off some rust. Even if he manages that, there’s the question of developing chemistry with his teammates. The Spurs are just not going to be whole this season, unfortunately. I still want him to return, however, because even in a diminished state, he might turn a disappointing regular season into a second round appearance, at worst.

Marilyn Dubinski: I’ll only believe Kawhi is back when he actually is, but even if he does return it’s hard to imagine there will be enough time to suddenly turn the Spurs back into the contender they were supposed to be heading into the season. Still, at the minimum it should get them to the playoffs and likely past the first round (assuming they get the 6th seed or above).

Bruno Passos: I’m pretty dubious, mostly because this injury has been so vexing and the window is so small. Leonard wasn’t even playing in back-to-backs earlier in the year when he was testing the quad out — how are we to expect him, months removed from doing anything that can spell actual NBA play — to insert himself back in and hit the ground running?

Jeph Duate: Leonard’s return will be shrouded with many questions, all of which will be answered almost immediately. The reality is only Kawhi knows how he feels. If he feels 100%, he will give 100%. And when Kawhi Leonard gives 100%, anything is possible.

The Spurs dropped the last two games in the second half of the 4th quarter after leading the entire game. Why are they having such a hard time closing games?

Barrington: In the NBA, stars matter in crunch time. I don’t see any stars out there late in games on this edition of the Spurs.

Gomez: It’s all about poor execution, in my eyes. The Spurs didn’t have their two best players, which is what most people would rightfully focus on. But they also had a young point guard who is learning on the job out there. Both because of injuries and lineup experimentation, the Spurs don’t have a closing unit that can play cohesively on both ends. I expect more close losses than wins until they find one.

Dubinski: No Kawhi or LaMarcus Aldridge meant the lack of a go-to guy on offense down the stretch when the Spurs desperately needed buckets. They also appeared out of gas with the short rotations, and poor defense and sloppy ball-handling in the crunch didn’t help either.

Passos: The defense has been the main culprit (they gave up 70 and 63 points in the two second halves), and missing LaMarcus Aldridge hasn’t helped. The Spurs’ wouldn’t have been picked apart as much in the pick and roll by Isaiah Thomas, Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday, and there’s a much better chance they get that box out against Anthony Davis (and don’t give up the alley oop a few possessions earlier).

Duarte: Ultimately, these last two losses can be attributed to poor execution. With the Pelicans, the Spurs had three turnovers in the last four possessions. Combined with the missed shot attempts, the Spurs gave away a game after leading for 46+ minutes. With the Lakers, they did not protect the 3-point arc during the crunch time and the Lakers had a field day. At the same time, the Spurs were missing a lot of shots at the offensive end.

Head Coach Gregg Popovich has gone to Patty Mills to start in place of Danny Green since Green sat out with the stomach flu. Has the move helped or should Pop re-evaluate his decision?

Barrington: When Danny is fully recovered, he should start again. But then again, having Danny feast against bench players isn’t all bad.

Gomez: I get why the decision makes sense. Mills is constantly moving and can create his own shot in a pinch, something that Murray’s backcourt partner needs to do right now. At the same time, the team needs an identity and these changes are making it harder to install one. I’d rather have Pop get the starters to focus on defense with a long, switch-y perimeter trio of Murray, Green and Anderson instead of having a middling upgrade on offense at the shooting guard position.

Dubinski: I’m split on this decision. I can see how Patty might fit better alongside Dejounte, and the same can be said with Green and Tony Parker (they’ve only won a championship starting together, no biggie). In some ways both Patty and Danny have looked better individually — coincidentally or not -- since the move but I haven’t noticed any improvement to the team as a whole as a result of this move.

Passos: Beyond the potentially better fit for Mills alongside Dejounte Murray, I don’t really like it. Danny Green’s excellent defense isn’t nearly as helpful when matched up against backup wings, and that’s what the Spurs need most out of him. More importantly, it’s another disruption for a team that’s thrived on continuity. This could be Pop experimenting, the temporary result of some internal issue between player and coach, or maybe it’s the Spurs quietly raising Mills’ market value. Either way, I’m not a fan of the move in the long run if the goal is to remain competitive.

Duarte: I am not sure of the exact reasoning, but I do like a bench with Tony Parker, Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, Rudy Gay, and Pau Gasol. Meanwhile, if the younger Spurs— Murray and Bertans — can hold their own alongside Aldridge and Anderson (or better yet LaMarcus and Kawhi) while facing some elite teams, then the experiment creates more agility in the postseason line-ups. Subbing Mills for Green gives you a more energy at the shooting guard right from the tip off. Other than that, it probably helps Green to continue to have Parker as his point guard. They play well together and know what to expect.

Bryn Forbes is the fourth-highest scorer for the San Antonio Spurs this season? He played eight minutes in the loss to the Pelicans and did not play against the Lakers. Should he be out of the rotation? [NOTE FROM BRUNO: MURRAY PASSED HIM OVER THE WEEKEND; HE’S NOW 5th]

Barrington: He’s not an NBA-level talent at this point in his career. He got lots of playing time this year because of injuries and it’s helped him develop. He may be a good piece for the future, but if the Spurs have to rely on him in the playoffs this year, they’re in trouble.

Gomez: I’d love to see Pop make some room for Forbes by going small more often, but that’s not meant to be, I fear. With Parker back, there might not be room for him in the regular rotation. Hopefully he’ll still have a role as a “break the glass in case of emergency” shooter, if the offense goes through droughts.

Dubinski: He has definitely exceeded expectations this season, but it’s easy to see why he’s out of the rotation when all the guards are healthy. He’ll never be getting minutes ahead of Murray, Mills, Parker, Green and Ginobili.

Passos: Forbes played a role in helping the Spurs tread water in the season’s early months, but the redundancy in skillsets between he and Mills always led me to think an ideal rotation wouldn’t include both.

Duarte: Mills and Forbes do have redundancies, this has been discussed at length. I wonder if some economics is not at play here. By starting Mills, you create a better market for a possible trade. By benching Forbes, you hopefully keep the vultures from circling in the off-season. Assuming that a healthy Kawhi Leonard makes his way back this season, we will most likely see Anderson come off the bench. The Spurs might be better to bench Mills and start with Murray, Anderson, Leonard, Bertans, and Aldridge. That said, Mills and Forbes would then undoubtedly be redundant and underutilized and therefore one of them has to go.

The Spurs and Warriors have split their games 5-5 over the last 3 seasons. This season the Warriors are up two games with two to go this month. Can the Spurs keep that parity alive this year? What do they need to do to beat the Warriors?

Barrington: Whatever they need, it’s unattainable right now. The Warriors are just a lot better than the Spurs this year. Especially this season, with all of the games lost to injury from star players. I think someone should write an absurdist play about the Spurs’ 2018 season, maybe it should be called ‘First Round Exit’ by, let’s say, Chris Paul Sartre. But that has already been written and played out multiple times by other teams. The only team in the west that has a chance to beat the Warriors this season is the Rockets, so maybe the ending of the story will be changed this year.

Gomez: I feel like they could steal one with a lot of luck if the Warriors are complacent. Winning two doesn’t seem realistic. But I’d say that the parity is still there between them, because the Spurs are clearly undermanned. Hopefully we’ll see the two teams do battle while healthy, either in the playoffs or next season. The Warriors will likely prevail, but at least it should be a fun duel.

Dubinski: Never mind twice; the Spurs will be lucky to win one of those games. If they’re even going to accomplish that they’ll need full health, one of their best games of the season on both ends, and the Warriors coming out complacent and not expecting a fight.

Passos: A monkey’s paw, the Ark of the Covenant, and a healthy Kawhi Leonard.

Duarte: This year, the Warriors have dropped games to the Grizzlies, the Kings, the Hornets, and the Clippers. Winning 82 games is impossible, some level of complacency, exhaustion, injury can cause the most elite players to be out of sync. That said, most teams pay a little more attention when it’s the Spurs, like beating them is the badge of honor. So I’d expect the Warriors to hit us with everything they got. I expect a loss on the road, and a win at home on March 19th when Kerr orders the Dubs to take the foot off the gas a little and coast toward the playoffs. Remember, Golden State had to fight hard to beat the Spurs at their last contest in 2016. That game did two things. One, it was the only Spurs home loss defying them of a record over the Boston Celtics. Two, it was the last game the Warriors had as a must win to complete their 73-game winning season. That game may have been the perfect time for them to rest key players.


Do you have a question you would like posed to our esteemed panel? Please place it in the comments section below.