OAKLAND – The last time the Spurs played a season opening game without Tim Duncan at power forward, Bob Hill was the head coach and Carl Herrera was in the spot Duncan eventually manned for 19 years.
That was Nov. 1, 1996, and the Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Spurs, 82-78.
Herrera didn’t score a point.
Those Timberwolves were led by 20-year-old Kevin Garnett but they were hardly a super team like this season’s opening night opponent. The Golden State Warriors have four All-NBA players, including two former MVPs: Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, the four-time NBA scoring champion who left Oklahoma City to sign on with the team that beat the Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference Finals.
Undaunted, the Spurs began this Duncan-less era with a 129-100 victory over the Warriors that stunned a partisan crowd at sold out Oracle Arena and most of the basketball loving world.
Nobody has called the Spurs a super team in the run-up to the 2016-17 season, not with Duncan retired and seven new players on the roster. But Kawhi Leonard looked as much a legitimate MVP candidate on Tuesday as anyone on the court, scoring a career high 35 points and getting five steals, five rebounds and three assists.
In his sixth season, Leonard also seems the perfect heir to Duncan’s role as the Spurs’ leader by example. He has improved, season to season, and on Tuesday he showed that he has learned how to get to the foul line as most superstar scorers do. He was there for 15 free throws and made them all.
Gregg Popovich doesn’t have to run plays for Leonard because he has given him carte blanche to create his own offense.
“He basically tells me what he wants to do now,” Popovich said after beginning his 20th full season on the Spurs bench. “He’ll take the ball. He’ll send the screener away. He’ll decide if he wants to go one-on-one with no screen, no pick. He is much more demonstrative, looks for his shots more. He knows he has the green light. I think that’s the difference. He’s making threes or he’s driving it. He’s finding people on the court. While people are giving him attention he’s finding people like Patty Mills for wide open shots.
“He’s just really more confident, more aggressive, more hungry to score than in the past.”
Leonard is beginning to understand the superstar dynamic that sometimes drives NBA fans to distraction: The more aggressive a superstar plays, the more likely he is to get the benefit of the referees’ doubts.
“As I gradually keep getting the ball and my teammates give me the confidence, the refs will see that and start calling more fouls,” Leonard said. “I’m just trying to be aggressive.”
Manu Ginobili sees the result of Leonard’s study of the players who get the most foul calls, including Houston’s James Harden, the NBA leader in free throws attempted last season.
“I can see some of his moves being more Harden-like: Going to the rim, showing the ball and baiting opponents to foul him. Or it just came. It could be anything,” Ginobili said.
“He has become such a reliable scorer, and now adding another ability that he has polished the last two years, which is getting to the line. He has become so good drawing contact and with his hands and strength, drawing fouls and showing you the ball and baiting you to foul him. He has become unbelievable. That’s a good weapon to have because sometimes you are dry, you can’t score, and he didn’t score the ball shooting well but he went to the line 10 times in the first half and made them all. That makes everything easier.”
Leonard wasn’t alone in feasting on a Warriors defense that lost two solid defenders, Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes, after signing Durant to a free agent contract worth $54 million over two years. LaMarcus Aldridge scored 26 points and grabbed 14 rebounds and second-year guard-forward Jonathan Simmons scored 20 points in an unexpected, off-the-bench outburst.
“I’m just doing whatever my team and Pop ask me to do,” Simmons said. “I’m just staying ready for my opportunity and taking advantage.”
Not even the most avid Spurs fan could have predicted the extent of the Spurs domination of a team that has been established as a prohibitive favorite to win its third straight Western Conference title. Their command was so complete that Popovich finished the game with three rookies – Davis Bertans, Nico Laprovittola, and Bryn Forbes – on the court for the final four minutes.
“It’s unexpected,” Ginobili said. “If there was an outcome I wasn’t expecting it was this one: a 29-point lead against a team like them. I truly didn’t expect it. I think we’ve had many more games that were more satisfying because they were down the stretch and we were fighting for a one spot, two seed, or whatever. But, of course, we are happy about it because we didn’t expect it. We didn’t expect to play that good, that sharp and it’s a great way to start a season.
“But it’s just one game and we’ve got 81 ahead.”
Game No. 2 will be played on Thursday against the Kings in Sacramento. The Spurs will be favored in that one.
“We didn’t win a championship (Tuesday) or anything like that,” Aldridge said. “It was about getting better. It was a nice start for us.”