The first time the Spurs had to vacate their home arena to make way for barrel racers, bull riders, calf ropers and mutton busters during the 2002-03 season, they returned from the home court hiatus with eight wins in nine road games. There was talk of the team bonding during the three-plus weeks players and coaches spent on the road and when that season concluded with David Robinson hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy at what was then called The SBC Center after the final game of his Hall of Fame career, the legend of the rodeo road trip had begun.
After running this season’s rodeo trip record to 6-1 on Thursday night with a 96-78 win over a previously sizzling Utah Jazz team at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City, the Spurs have added another chapter to the lore of a journey that always seems to set them up for the playoffs.
Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points and Tim Duncan snapped back from just the second scoreless game of his 19-year career to get 14 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Spurs to their 21st road win of the season, assuring their 19th straight winning road record. No NBA team has strung together as many winning road records.
Duncan also blocked one shot and needs just one more to become just the fifth player in NBA history with 3,000 blocks.
Utah became the ninth team unable to score at least 80 points against the Spurs. They are 9-0 in such games and 23-1 in the games in which their opponent scored fewer than 90 points.
The story of this season’s coast-too-coast tour has Kawhi Leonard at its central character. The fifth-year small forward, who committed to the Spurs in July for another five years on an NBA maximum $94 million contract, hit a game-winning basket in Game 2 of the trip on Feb. 10, then played in his very first NBA All-Star Game. When the rodeo trip resumed he missed the first three games with tightness in his left calf, which had been kicked in the very first game of the trip, on Feb. 9.
The Spurs defense suffered without the reigning NBA Defensive Plyer of the Year, the three opponents averaging a combined 109.7 points per game. But he returned against the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday and so did the team’s defensive efficiency.
Against the Jazz Leonard dominated both ends of the court. Making 10-of-15 shots, including 3-of-5 shots from long range, he scored 29 points, his second-highest game of the season. He got more aggressive as the game progressed, his confidence on display as he called for the ball and created shots for himself and others.
“I’ve just got a good group of teammates and veterans on my team,” he told FoxSports Southwest broadcasters Bill Land and Sean Elliott in a televised postgame interview. “They told me before the game that if somebody is on me who is smaller, just go in the post and be aggressive. That’s all I’m trying to do and trying to make wide-open shots for my teammates, not just for myself.”
Leonard said he has benefited from film study of some of the game’s best players, paying particular attention to how they seek their own shots in transition.
“I just watch the top tier guys bringing the ball up in transition and them just being so focused and comfortable with waving guys off,” Leonard said.” Coach Pop has given me more confidence in doing that when I do get the rebound and come up the floor.”
Leonard’s effect at the defensive end was equally impactful. Utah’s best player, Gordon Hayward, came into the game having scored at least 19 points in seven straight games. With Leonard denying the ball and pestering his every shot, Hayward made only 4-of-13 shots against the Spurs, scoring only 11 points.
Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.