It had been two full weeks since the Spurs had seen Kawhi Leonard, their All-Star Game starter, in a black-and-silver uniform but they welcomed him back to game action on Monday night at Sacramento’s Sleep Train Arena, where they scored a 108-92 win over the Kings.
The victory ran their record to 48-9 and assured another winning rodeo road trip. With two games remaining on the trip the Spurs are now 5-1. They are 20-9 on the road for the season, second only to league-leading Golden State in road victories.
Nobody should have been surprised when Leonard got off to a shaky start in Sacramento, missing the five shots he took in the first quarter. His last truly competitive action came on Feb. 10, when he hit a game-winning 3-point shot against the Orlando Magic in the second game of the Spurs’ annual rodeo road trip.
Yes, Leonard started for the Western Conference in the NBA All-Star Game on Valentine’s Day, but there was nothing Spurs-like about a game given over to offensive excess and individual exploit, even with Gregg Popovich and his entire staff serving as the West’s coaches. That game produced a record 369 total points (West 196, East 173) and Leonard got 17 of them, plus a left calf injury that put him on the shelf when the rodeo trip resumed last Thursday in Los Angeles.
So Leonard looked hesitant and out of sync in his first stint against the Kings on Monday and shortly past the midpoint of the first period Popovich subbed second-year Spur Kyle Anderson into the game in his spot, the KENS-TV telecast catching Popovich having a brief heart-to-heart chat with his No. 1 scorer and defensive ace.
It didn’t take long for second-year swing man Anderson to play as if trying to prove he deserved to remain in Leonard’s spot in the Spurs starting lineup, a status he enjoyed in the three games without Leonard. Suddenly emerging as another reliable scorer, Anderson made all three of the shots he took in the first quarter. By halftime he had made 5-of-6 shots, grabbed a team-high six rebounds, handed out three assists and made one steal.
Eventually, Anderson matched his career high in points with 14, logged a little more than 29 minutes, and further cemented an important spot in Popovich’s playing rotation. In a pre-game interview with KENS-TV broadcaster Bill Land before tipoff, Popovich lauded his development into a more confident player in the three games without Leonard , calling the lone bright spot of otherwise “shaky” Spurs play in the previous three games.
Whatever Popovich said to Leonard after he pulled him in the first quarter seemed to settle the Spurs star. He made 5-of-11 shots in the final three quarters and finished with 18 points and 8 rebounds.
It was the effect Leonard, the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, had on the Spurs defense that made the biggest impact on Monday’s game. He played typically stifling defense on Rudy Gay, Sacramento’s No. 2 scorer, and had four of the Spurs’ eight steals. Plus, his presence on the court pulled the Spurs together defensively and the result was quantifiable. After allowing an average of 109.7 points to the three opponents they played without Leonard, the Spurs on Thursday limited the Kings to 40.6 percent shooting and were back to their season average of just 92 points allowed.
Tony Parker led the spurs in scoring for a third straight game, making 11-off-17 shots and scoring 23 points.
LaMarcus Aldridge had his least productive game since Christmas Day, scoring only seven points, but had a season-high five blocks, four of them against Kings scoring star DeMarcus Cousins, who entered the game with an average of 27.3 points per game, No. 4 in the NBA. Cousins missed all 10 of his shots in the first half and scored only one point, and while he finished with 22 points, he needed 23 shots to get them and was totally frustrated by game’s end.
For the second time this season – and just the second time in his career – Spurs captain Tim Duncan was scoreless. In just under 12 minutes on the court the 39-year-old two-time Most Valuable Player took only two shots and missed both. He did not get to the foul line.
His short playing time should have Duncan fresh for Tuesday’s game in Salt Lake City against the Utah Jazz, the penultimate game of the rodeo trip. The nearly month-long odyssey is to conclude on Saturday night with a game against the Rockets at Houston’s Toyota Center.
*Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.