Even as news off the court goes from bad to worse for the Spurs, the results on the floor keep getting better and better.
In a head-to-head matchup against four-time Most Valuable Player LeBron James, Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard scored a career-high 41 points on Saturday, dragging the Spurs to a dramatic 118-115 overtime victory over the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena.
Leonard’s brilliance in recording his sixth consecutive game of 30 or more points temporarily took the sting out of the latest injury setback for the Spurs. One day after learning that starting center Pau Gasol needed surgery to repair a fractured bone in his left hand, starting point guard Tony Parker returned to San Antonio from Cleveland to have an MRI on his sore left foot and ankle. The longest tenured Spur, a starter since his rookie season, Parker will miss at least the remaining three games of the current Spurs road trip, which continues Monday with a game in Brooklyn against the Nets.
That’s two All-NBA players lost for multiple games in one week, which seems like a serious threat to the momentum the Spurs carried through the first half of the 82-game regular season until one realizes that Leonard now seems capable of doing whatever it takes to keep the Spurs winning.
On Saturday, that meant matching up against James at both ends of the court for the bulk of the game. It was hardly a coincidence that the two All-NBA small forwards logged nearly identical amounts of court time – 46 minutes for Leonard, 45 minutes and 20 seconds for James. Neither Spurs coach Gregg Popovich nor Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue dared allow the opponent’s superstar more than a possession or two without his counterpart also in the game.
This time, Leonard got the best of a matchup he always enjoys, win or lose.
“It’s great,” Leonard said. “I’m just having fun out there playing against him. We’ve been through battles in the finals, and always when I’m playing somebody great on a great team, it just pushes your energy and you’re just having the most fun at that time.
“I definitely [kick it up a notch] playing against a guy like him. You can’t be out there being lazy or scared. You’ve just got to go out there and compete and hopefully get a win.”
The absence of Gasol and Parker, the team’s No. 3 and No. 4 scorers, put the ball in Leonard’s hands more often, and it is more evident with every game that the Spurs are best served when he touches the ball on offense. He understands he has been in a shooter’s groove for the past two weeks.
“Yeah, I’m in a bit of a rhythm,” Leonard told ABC-TV’s Lisa Salters in a televised courtside interview after the Spurs survived a final 3-point shot by Cleveland’s Kevin Love that could have forced a second overtime. “The coaching staff is doing a great job. My players are getting me the ball in my spots … Just trying to win.”
Leonard has helped the Spurs win 34 of their first 43 games, more than any team but the Golden State Warriors, the defending Western Conference champions. On Saturday, he made 15-of-30 shots, the first Spurs player to attempt that many field goals since Parker took 32 shots (and made 15) in a 93-76 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Feb. 24, 2009. Leonard missed four of his first five 3-point attempts, but made 2-of-3 in the fourth quarter, when he scored 12 of their first 14 points.
Though Leonard has been force-fed a huge portion of the offense during his sizzling streak, he had plenty of help against the Cavaliers. LaMarcus Aldridge scored eight of his 16 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. He also had 12 rebounds, a season high six assists, and two blocks. The fill-in starters, David Lee and Dejounte Murray, also made big contributions. Murray, making the fourth start of his rookie season, made 7-of-10 shots and scored 14 points. Lee scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, a second straight double-double.
Despite 14 turnovers and some defensive lapses that accounted for the loss of a 9-point lead in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, Popovich loved the competitiveness displayed by both teams.
“It was a great game,” he said. “It was anybody’s game. It comes down to making shots at the end of the regulation. We had some great shots that didn’t go down. And in overtime, they had some great shots that didn’t go down. It happens. Both teams busted their butts. It was a good, competitive game.”