Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs drives to the basket against Tony Snell #21 of the Milwaukee Bucks during the first half of a game at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on December 5, 2016 in Milwaukee. Credit: Stacy Revere / Getty Images

The Spurs walked into Milwaukee’s Bradley Center on Monday night with an 11-game road win streak and a clear understanding of how little such a gaudy record meant to their opponent.

Little more than a year ago, it was the Bucks who snapped the longest season-opening road win streak in NBA history, the 14 straight by the Golden State Warriors that were part of the league’s longest overall season-opening streak ever, 24 wins in a row.

For much of Monday’s game, it appeared the Bucks also would end the Spurs’ franchise best run of season-opening success away from home, especially when they took a 57-42 lead with seven minutes and 27 seconds left in the third quarter. It didn’t help that Kawhi Leonard seemed unable to find the offensive magic that has made him one of the NBA’s best players thus far this season, missing 8-of-10 shots and scoring only five points through three quarters.

But NBA games are 48 minutes long, not 36, and Leonard exploded for 16 of his team-high 21 points in the fourth quarter of a 97-96 win that allowed the Spurs to match the second-best road start in NBA history, 12-0. They are tied with the 1969-70 New York Knicks, who began a season that ended with an NBA title by winning their first 12 road games.

Only last season’s Warriors, whose streak the Bucks ended, are ahead of the Spurs in season-opening road success.

Monday’s win was the most dramatic of the 12, requiring a clutch basket from LaMarcus Aldridge to give the Spurs their margin of victory, plus a clutch rebound from Aldridge to preserve it.

They also needed some luck on Milwaukee’s final shot to get their record to 17-4. Mirza Teletovic, a 39% 3-point shooter, misfired on a wide-open shot from the right corner, and Aldridge outjumped Bucks power forward Jabari Parker for the rebound.

“I kind of released it wrong,” Teletovic said. “I had a wide-open shot. I set myself the right way, looked at the rim and released it. Sometimes you make some and some you miss. That’s the way basketball is.”

On this night, the way basketball was in the first half left Gregg Popovich reaching for a way to keep the Bucks from dominating the paint, where they had outscored the Spurs 24-10.

His response: a zone defense that forced the Bucks to rely on more perimeter shots. The result was a total turnaround in points in the paint as the Spurs found a 34-10 edge.

The Spurs coach put the turnaround in more basic terms.

“We got tired of playing soft,” he said.

The Spurs survived some other statistical aberrations that ordinarily mandate defeat:

  • 0-for-8 shooting by super-sub Patty Mills, the team’s No. 3 scorer this season, including 0-for-5 from 3-point range
  • 8-for-28 3-point shooting by the Spurs for the game, their second-worst long distance accuracy this season.
  • The lowest scoring quarter (nine points in the second period) and lowest scoring half (32 points in the first half) for the Spurs.

They also survived the absence of starting point guard Tony Parker for the final 20 minutes and 30 seconds. Parker had returned to the lineup after missing the previous two games with a sore right knee and a left quadriceps (thigh) strain. He had six points and five assists before tumbling to the floor after a drive to the basket with 8:30 remaining in the third period, his left thigh injury aggravated. He limped to the bench and remained there for the rest of the game

“Just no luck, I got hit in the same spot,” Parker told reporters on the scene afterward. “It happens, it’s part of the game. (I’ll) do treatment and hopefully feel better tomorrow.”

Parker’s injury brought Nicolas Laprovittola into the game and the rookie from Argentina was instrumental in the rally that brought the Spurs back from a 57-42 deficit. In just under nine minutes of court time Laprovittola had five assists and nailed a 3-point shot that punctuated a 10-0 run that completely turned the game.

Backup center DeWayne Dedmon was the other hero off the bench. Playing his fourth game since returning from his own bout on the injured list with a sprained left knee, Dedmon scored 10 points and grabbed five of his six rebounds during the Spurs rally, but one of his biggest plays was diving after a loose ball and saving it in to Leonard early in the fourth quarter. Leonard turned the save into a dunk and 34 seconds later Dedmon followed with a rebound basket of his own, giving the Spurs their first lead since the end of the first quarter.

“We had to come out after halftime and play with a bunch of energy and just be physical,” Dedmon told FoxSports Southwest broadcasters Bill Land and Sean Elliott in a televised courtside interview following the game.

Dedmon also was instrumental in the zone defense that kept the Bucks from getting to the rim as often as they had in the first half.

“We had to realize who we were playing against,” Dedmon said. “They’re not really a great 3-point shooting team so we definitely had to pack it in and the zone helped us a lot.”

Mike Monroe

Mike Monroe is a longtime, award-winning NBA and Spurs reporter who recently retired from the Express-News and is now contributing to the Rivard Report.