There are many reasons NBA fans selected Spurs‘ forward Kawhi Leonard to be a Western Conference starter in Sunday’s All-Star Game in Toronto but until Wednesday night in Orlando, making game-winning shots was way down the list.
But on this night at Amway Center, Gregg Popovich asked Leonard to emulate the Kobe Bryant who terrorized defenses in such situations during the prime of his 20-year career that will conclude at season’s end.
With his team locked in a tie with the Magic after Orlando’s Evan Fournier drained a corner 3-point shot with 13.3 seconds remaining, Popovich used two time outs to set up the simplest of game-winning strategies: Put the ball in Leonard’s hands and space the floor to give him room to work.
After taking an in-bounds pass from Rasual Butler that barely beat the five-second count, Leonard positioned himself 10 feet beyond the 3-point line on the right quadrant of the court, defended by Aaron Gordon, a 6-foot-9 forward that Magic coach Scott Skiles deems his best perimeter defender. Leonard bided his time, taking nine dribbles before starting toward the basket. He lost Gordon with a quick crossover dribble to his left that freed him for a jumper just inside the 3-point line.
Leonard’s perfect shot slid through the net with 0.9 seconds left and gave the Spurs a 98-96 win, their sixth straight, running their record to 45-8, the best start in franchise history.
It also provided another bit of evidence Leonard can present to the basketball world as he builds a case that he has become one of the NBA’s truly elite players. He finished with 29 points, seven rebounds, two steals, two assists and a block.
“I was with whatever play Coach Pop called at that time,” Leonard told reporters in a post-game interview aired on the FoxSports telecast. “He gave it to me so I tried to take great advantage of my opportunity.
“I knew a little bit what I was going to do. We practice shots like that so I just took a ‘practice’ shot and it ended up falling.”
Don’t underestimate the significance of Popovich’s decision to allow Leonard to freelance the final play, one-on-one against Gordon. It’s what Phil Jackson did when he coached the Lakers and let Bryant dictate the outcome of games, just as he had put the biggest of games in Michael Jordan’s hands when he coached the Bulls. Popovich typically designs plays for game-winning situations that involve deception away from the ball and result in open looks for his most reliable shooters, but this time he trusted his All-Star starter to create something on his own, as if he were Bryant or Jordan.
The Spurs who won’t be in Toronto for All-Star weekend – everyone but Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Popovich and his assistants – will enjoy eight days off with smiles on their faces after a comeback from 14 points down with just seven minutes remaining in the game. Their comeback was led by their two All-Stars and Patty Mills, who logged 31 minutes and 30 seconds at point guard because starter Tony Parker rolled his ankle in Tuesday’s win in Miami.
“It was one of those games you’ve just got to grind out and try your best and we’re very happy we came away with that win,” Mills said during a post-game interview with FoxSports Southwest broadcasters Andrew Monaco and Sean Elliott. “We just knew we had to hang in there and grind. Nothing had to be said. We knew we weren’t playing great but it was all about hanging in there and just fighting it out. Some games that’s all it takes: That hustle, that focus, that belief to still hang in there.
“It’s one of those games where you start to build character and team chemistry and being able to trust in one another, for sure.”
Mills made one of several vital defensive plays when he knocked a Magic in-bounds pass into the hands of Leonard with 17 seconds remaining and the Spurs leading, 94-93. Foiled immediately as he took a dribble that would have put him on a path to the Spurs basket, Leonard made both free throws to give the Spurs a 96-93 lead.
“The comeback was all from defense and our ability to get a few stops and get some deflections and then run out of that,” Mills said. “It’s the same story every game: Defense, defense, defense.”
The Spurs defense got a boost with the return of team captain Tim Duncan, who had missed the previous eight games with a sore right knee. Duncan’s shot was predictably rusty – he missed 7-of-9 shots – but he had seven rebounds, five assists and three blocks in a little more than 18 minutes and Popovich was satisfied with what he had seen, especially since Duncan reported his knee felt fine afterwards.
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*Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.