The stomach virus that had forced Kawhi Leonard to sit out the Spurs games against the Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers that preceded the team’s Sunday game against the Atlanta Hawk was gone.
It was clear the effects lingered in what became a 114-112 overtime loss.
The team’s leading scorer all season, Leonard was back in the lineup Sunday at Atlanta’s Phillips Arena, doing what he could to extend a five game win streak, but it’s impossible to fool Mother Nature.
Shots Leonard typically makes were off just a hair, and he finished with his worst shooting performance of the season, 3-for-12, including 1-for-6 from 3-point range.
Loose balls that usually end up in his outsized mitts barely eluded his grasp. He had only one steal, offset by having the ball snatched out of his grip by Atlanta’s Thabo Sefolosha on a later play.
In the end, lingering aftereffects notwithstanding, Gregg Popovich still wanted the ball in Leonard’s hands when the Spurs got the ball with 3.3 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the scored tied at 100. The team’s best players always want the ball in crunch time, no matter the circumstances, so Popovich drew up an in-bounds play for Leonard.
Manu Ginobili delivered an in-bounds pass to Leonard that gave him a good path to the lane for a 14-foot fade away jumper. The arc of the shot seemed perfect, but the ball rolled completely around the rim and then began a second lap before hanging for a fraction, and falling to the court.
“Kawhi had a great look and it literally rolled out, circled out,” Spurs center Pau Gasol said in a postgame interview televised by FoxSports Southwest. “We had our chances in overtime but they made plays. Give them credit, and that’s about it.”
In the overtime that followed, Leonard had a second chance, this time to end the game to a second extra period. A driving lefty layup attempt he had to launch over solid defense from Atlanta’s Paul Millsap slid off the side of the rim as time expired.
The result was the first overtime game of the season, and when Atlanta’s Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 9 of his 29 points in the period, the Spurs had a loss to begin the 2017 portion of the 2016-17 season.
Afterwards, Popovich refused to speculate on how sickly his star forward had felt.
“I don’t know how to gauge that,” Popovich said, “but he certainly wasn’t 100%. He’s just recovering, but he gave it a heck of an effort considering how sick he’s been.”
The victory was the first for the Hawks over the Spurs since March 21, 2010, snapping a string of 11 straight Spurs wins. And, it gave former Gregg Popovich assistant Mike Budenholzer his first win against his one time boss and mentor. Budenholzer departed the Spurs after 18 years on Popovich’s staff, 16 of those as an assistant coach.
“I’m happy for him,” Popovich said in postgame remarks provided by the Hawks. “It was a great game. Guys played well. If we’re going to lose, it’s good to feel like somebody on the other end was made happy.
“It was a good win for those guys. It would have been a good win for us. But I thought both teams played pretty well. It was a good, competitive game.”
The loss was just the third on the road this season for the Spurs, now 16-3 away from AT&T Center, 27-7 overall.
With Leonard ailing, the Spurs relied more on power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who came into the game having made 27-of-35 shots (77%) in the previous three games, as well as Tony Parker and Pau Gasol. They responded by combining to make 28-of-45 shots and score 67 points, 27 of those from Aldridge, whose hot streak continued (12-for-17).
Ordinarily, such hot shooting produces a Spurs win, but on this night the hottest shooter in the arena was Atlanta’s Tim Hardaway Jr. In his third game after sitting out two games with a groin strain, Hardaway made 11-of-13 shots, including 6-of-7 from long range, matching his career-high game of 29 points.
His 3-pointer from 26 feet with 3.3 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter tied the score at 100-100, and set up Leonard’s near-miss at the regulation buzzer.
“I just wanted to do a great job of just separating from my man,” Hardaway said. “Mike Muscala and Kyle Korver did a great job of screening their own men and getting me open.”