SACRAMENTO – The Spurs’ Thursday night game against the Sacramento Kings was the first NBA regular season at Golden 1 Arena, a state-of-the-art facility in the heart of California’s capital city that is billed as the most high-tech indoor sports and entertainment venue in the world.
There are bells and whistles and individual comfort controls for each of the 17,500 seats in the $600 million facility. If a patron spills a drink or drops a hot dog, he or she can “Tweet” a special hashtag and the location of the mishap will be identified by the Kings’ game-night staff, who then will dispatch a worker to clean up the mess and replace the item.
Nobody needed social media to identify the mishaps that doomed the Kings and allowed the Spurs to claim a 102-94 victory in a grind-out game that had its own level of satisfaction that matched Tuesday’s thumping of the Golden State Warriors. They were committed in full view of the sellout crowd, right at midcourt, where Spurs defensive superstar Kawhi Leonard swiped the ball from the grip of Kings forward Ben McLemore on back-to-back plays.
It was late in the third quarter, the Spurs trailing by two points, 68-66, when Leonard simply reached out his giant right hand and snatched the ball away as McLemore dribbled up the left side of the floor. He headed for the Spurs basket for a layup, and McLemore fouled him in a vain attempt to prevent the basket.
After completing the three-point play, Leonard’s teammate, DeWayne Dedmon, told him the Kings had gotten instructions from their new head coach, Dave Joerger, to run the same play on their next possession.
“DeWayne did a great job telling me,” Leonard said, “and I just saw an opportunity there and went for (another) steal.”
The result: Instant replay, Leonard repeating the grab-and-go. McLemore knew better than to foul him this time, saving one point, and the two plays left the Spurs with only a 3-point lead, 71-68. Nevertheless, those who understand the dynamics of NBA play knew there was neither a bell nor a whistle in the sparkling new arena that could keep the Spurs from getting the victory.
Gregg Popovich knew.
In his 20th full season as the Spurs head coach, Popovich rarely is amazed by anything, but Leonard’s back-to-back defensive gems left him grasping for descriptives.
“He took away two in a row and said, ‘Gimme that,’” Popovich said. “He just grabbed it away from whoever it was. He just grabbed it and took it twice in a row. I don’t see many people doing that. The things he does just amaze me.”
The steals were Leonard’s fourth and fifth swipes of the game, matching his five steals in the season opener on Tuesday. He also scored 30 points, becoming the first player since Miami’s Eddie Jones, in 2002, to score at least 30 points and get five steals in consecutive games. The last Spurs player to do so: Alvin Robertson, in 1986.
No NBA player had scored 65 points and had 5 steals in consecutive games since San Diego Clippers guard World B. Free, in 1979.
The rarity of his accomplishments brought a small smile from Leonard but they failed to resonate with the NBA’s most selfless superstar.
“I’m just out there trying to play the best basketball for the team so we can win the game,” Leonard said. “It’s all about winning for me. I don’t care what my stats come out to be that night. I just try to play it like it’s Game 7 of The NBA Finals. It’s win or lose. Stats don’t matter.”
Leonard got late scoring support Thursday from LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored 11 of his 16 points in the final nine-and-a-half minutes of the game. After scoring 24 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in the win over the Warriors, Aldridge entered the fourth quarter having taken only seven shots, making only two of those.
“It was tough,” Aldridge said. “I couldn’t get to the middle because they were double-teaming me and he was guarding me to the middle so I couldn’t get to my fade and my jump shot was being rushed. I was just trying to stay patient and at the end of the game it opened up for me. Coach made some tweaks that got me open.”
Aldridge teamed with Dedmon, a 7-foot center who signed a free agent contract with the Spurs in July, through the final eight minutes and 46 seconds of the final period. Dedmon scored 12 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked four shots in a solid 24 minutes of play. David Lee, the third of the free agent big men signed by the Spurs in July, also scored 12 points, with five rebounds and two assists.
“I thought David Lee and Dewayne were fantastic,” Popovich said. “They really gave us a lot of juice. Good job on the boards.”
With the win the Spurs remain unbeaten in their first season in 20 years without retired star Tim Duncan. Game No. 3 will be the home opener, a game against the New Orleans Pelicans at AT&T Center on Saturday night.