Kawhi Leonard’s ascent in the NBA has been as improbable as it’s been amazing to watch. But while the heights he’s reached over the last two years have offered new views from his lofty place among the league’s best, his opponent on the other side of the court Saturday night is no stranger to that elite company.
And San Antonio’s matchup against the Houston Rockets (5-4) at the Toyota Center could’ve been billed as a battle between Leonard and James Harden, two of the league’s Most Valuable Player frontrunners. Instead, with the roster fully intact and healthy for the first time this season, we saw a little bit of Gregg Popovich’s vintage wine — a blend of the old- and new-look Spurs.
Five different players scored in double-figures, with Leonard’s 20 leading the way in a 106-100 San Antonio win and a 7-3 record, and the ball was flying around from player to player as effectively as it has all season.
“This is how the Spurs have been playing (for years),” Leonard said. “We make hard cuts, we move the ball, we try to get the best look — the open shot — and when the opportunity comes for anyone, be aggressive and be ready to shoot.”
But even as the familiar Spurs made a few appearances along the way, the head-to-head battle many paid to see showed up in the fourth quarter. The teams’ two best players did some damage in final frame, often while going against one another. Leonard poured in eight points over the final 10-plus minutes, but it was Harden’s 10 points, three rebounds and three assists, and Eric Gordon’s scorching-hot shooting — he scored 13 of his 27 points and hit three of his seven 3-pointers in the frame — that turned a 16-point fourth-quarter lead for the Spurs into a nail-biter in the final minutes.
“We’re a different team. We don’t give up. No matter how bad things look, we just continue to fight,” Harden said after putting up his second consecutive triple-double with 25 points, 13 assists, and 11 rebounds. “We had an opportunity with a little bit over a minute left to go from a 16-point deficit to a four-point deficit. We just didn’t make enough shots, but as a team I think we did a really good job of just continuing to compete and giving ourselves a chance to win.”
The Spurs admitted the chances were there for the Rockets, too. As productive as the group looked together, there is room for improvement.
“We got a little lucky. This missed some open shots that they usually don’t,” Manu Ginobili said. “Harden shot 2-for-9 (from 3), Ryan Anderson 1-for-7 (from 3), some open. So we can really improve and hopefully we start from now on. Our last two games were not very successful in that aspect, so it starts there.”
While the result San Antonio got Saturday with a full roster is promising, it’s not necessarily the on-court product that’s most crucial to the team at this point in the young season. The Spurs lost a major part of their identity with the retirement of Tim Duncan over the summer, and it’s going to take a while to rebuild the corporate knowledge and culture that had been established over the last two decades. And part of that culture has always been playing defense.
“They scored 100 points — we probably made some mistakes somewhere in there. You just keep working. Everybody keeps working. It doesn’t matter if you won or lost. There’s many, many things teams need to improve,” Popovich said. “But we competed well. We competed really well. We played a lot of guys and they’re starting to figure each other out.
“That’s what we need. We have to build our culture back a little bit so people know what’s going on out there on the court.”
A major part of those last 20 years of cultivated culture was always the play of Tony Parker and the infusion of energy he provided. But as he’s aged and his scoring prowess has declined, he’s come under a lot of criticism and has even had his role as starter questioned by media and fans alike.
The Spurs, however, are having none of it. And on a night when he put in 16 points on just nine shots while icing the game at the line, they believe in his presence with the starters as much as ever.
“He gets us organized. He hasn’t been with us much so far this season. The last stretch, he played 10 or 10 and a half (minutes) in a row,” Popovich said. “It’s just a stability factor on the perimeter. That was a big help. Manu had a big game for us tonight (too). Adding those two to the mix is important, because of corporate knowledge.”
Ginobili echoed his coach’s sentiment.
“(Tony is) somebody else that knows exactly what’s going on. He knows the plays very well. Patty can do a great job, too, but Tony is our starting point guard and he has owned the team for many years, so we need him out there,” he said. “He’s still coming back. You can tell he’s not at his full potential. But today he gave us some solutions. We need him to be very good again and everybody to be contributing.”
Spurs fans have certainly come to love the way their team plays basketball over the last few years — “The Beautiful Game,” they call it. Others prefer watching the star power come out in head-to-head battles as opposed to the free-flowing, ball-sharing style. But on a night when the Spurs had the entire gang back together, we got a little of both.