By scoring 34 points in the Spurs’ 122-114 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday night at AT&T Center, All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard accomplished something that no Spurs player had realized in 13 years: a fourth consecutive game scoring 30 or more points.
The last to achieve the feat: Tim Duncan, the greatest player in franchise history, who put together a similar stretch of games in January 2004.
It was an achievement Gregg Popovich dismissed with a shrug of his shoulders.
“I don’t care,” the Spurs coach said. “That’s things you guys write about. It doesn’t mean anything to us.”
Popovich was equally unimpressed that Tuesday’s game got the Spurs to the statistical midpoint of the season with a record of 32-9 that is second-best in the entire NBA, behind only the defending Western Conference Champion Golden State Warriors, 35-6 at the halfway mark.
“We’re not where we want to be,” Popovich said. “That’s all I know. And, no team is where they want to be. Maybe Golden State is. But the rest of us are trying to get there.”
Statistical minutiae notwithstanding, Popovich greatly appreciated the attention to detail Leonard displayed in spearheading a 180-degree defensive turnaround by the Spurs after they allowed 71 points in the first half and committed 17 fouls. Those violations gave the Timberwolves 29 free throws in the half. They shot a 30th when Popovich was assessed a technical foul for boiling over about a foul that had not been called when it appeared Spurs power forward LaMarcus Aldridge had been shoved while going after a rebound.
Leonard’s 34 points against the Timberwolves added up to some additional arcana about which Popovich could not care less: The fact that, despite sitting out two games with gastroenteritis, the Spurs star has scored 30 or more points in 12 of the team’s first 41 games. To put that in perspective, that is the most 30-point games in the first half of any season since Hall of Fame center David Robison had 13 in the first half of the 1995-96 season.
Leonard’s four-game sizzle has elevated his scoring average to 24.8 points per game and moved him into the Top 10 in scoring in the league. More impressively, his 24.8 scoring average would have led the Spurs in scoring in all but one of the last 20 Spurs seasons. Duncan averaged 25.5 points per game in 2001-02, when he won the first of his two Most Valuable Player Awards.
Even Popovich may have arched an eyebrow over that distinction had he not been so concerned about the continuation of a trend that has perplexed him on more occasions that he can tolerate: A disturbing tendency to give up way too many points in the first half. The 71 points the Timberwolves scored were only two points shy of a season high for a Spurs opponent in the first half. They lost a Nov. 5 game to the Los Angeles Clippers when they allowed them 73 first-half points.
“Once again, as we’ve done very often, a tale of two halves,” Popovich said. “We gave up 71, then we gave up 44. We gave up 30 free throws (in the first half) and nine in the second half and that’s what it’s about: Being physical and playing smart. We did it for the second half. So, we played a great 24 minutes.”
They trailed only by four points at halftime because Leonard and Aldridge had combined for 32 points, 17 from Leonard. By game’s end, the pair had combined for 63 points, the highest total for two Spurs players in any game this season.
“Kawhi’s a first-team All-NBA player,” Popovich said. “He’s an All-Star. That’s what Kawhi does. He plays both ends of the floor like nobody’s business.”
Most of this season’s MVP chatter has centered around Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, who leads the league in scoring (30.7 points per game) and has 20 triple-doubles; and Houston’s James Harden, who has five triple-doubles that include 40 points and is third on the scoring list, at 28.7 points per game. But, neither of those offensive standouts is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year who is recognized as one of the best two-players in the game.
Leonard’s teammates don’t worry much about his flying so far below the MVP radar. They appreciate everything he does.
“I don’t know the type of recognition he has,” said Manu Ginobili, who joined the Spurs one season after Duncan’s 25.5 points per game output on 2001-02. “I don’t watch TV shows or talk to that many people. He’s got a (Finals) MVP already, started in the All-Star Game last year. So, he’s starting to get it and what people think or journalists think I don’t know. You tell me.
“But, for sure, we can’t stop saying it because what he is doing this year, particularly in a scoring mode, is truly remarkable to be able to do it so often.”