Their roster finally set for the playoffs with the recent addition of two solid veterans, the Spurs began the regular season stretch run on Thursday night with a 109-101 win over the Chicago Bulls at The AT&T Center.
If Kevin Martin, the 11-year veteran guard who joined the club on Wednesday, does little else but demonstrate to Kawhi Leonard how to draw more fouls, he may be one of the more valuable additions to the team this season.
An All-Star Game starter in February, Leonard made 10-of-15 shots and scored 29 points to lead the Spurs to their win against the Bulls. He also was visibly frustrated by several non-calls by the referees on plays he believed he should have drawn free throws.
With a reputation for understanding all the tricks to get to the line – he has averaged as many as 10.3 foul shots in his 11-plus seasons – Martin is a player who can lead Leonard by example, and the young Spurs star knows it.
“The first time he touched the ball tonight he got to the line,” Leonard said. “That’s something he knows how to do.”
Spurs captain Tim Duncan, who achieved another significant milestone in Thursday’s game, has seen Leonard’s frustration growing.
“He’s having an incredible year thus far and he’s starting to feel he can make the plays he’s making if he’s allowed the opportunity,” Duncan said. “So that’s the kind of situation and the kind of growth that goes with it. That frustration grows and he’s continued to be aggressive and he’s a big part of our offense and we need him to not only make those plays but to get those calls.”
Leonard continues to build a case that he has become one of the NBA’s truly elite players. After Thursday, his scoring average is up to 20.9 points per game, and he ranks No. 2 in the league in 3-point shooting. He also remains a strong candidate to repeat as Defensive Player of the Year and has made his way onto his first “Sports Illustrated” cover. He also has appeared on recent covers of Slam Magazine and ESPN The Magazine.
No wonder he is frustrated by the occasional lack of respect from the game’s officials.
“I don’t complain about it,” Leonard said, “but over the course of a game, it’s difficult. But I’ve just got to keep going and I’ll just start getting respect.
“It’s tough but you can’t just sit there and think about it the whole game. You’ve just got to keep moving on, and then after the game you can talk to the coach or one of your teammates about it.”
Duncan talked on Leonard’s behalf, partly to deflect attention from himself. His second of three rebounds against the Bulls was the 15,000th of his 19-season career, making him just the sixth player in the NBA’s 15,000 rebound club. The others are all Hall of Famers: Wilt Chamberlain, Bills Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elvin Hayes and Moses Malone.
Only Duncan and Abdul-Jabbar also have 3,000 blocked shots.
Much as he appreciates the distinguished company he now keeps in NBA statistical annals, Duncan is more than a little uncomfortable talking about his accomplishments.
“I don’t know what they’re supposed to mean,” he said. “They are what they are. Everybody keeps asking me, ‘How does it feel?’ I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like. I’ve been at it a long time and I’m honored to be on a list with some of these guys and when I look back it will mean a whole lot. Right now I’m just trying to get healthy and help the team.”
There also was a team milestone achieved on Thursday. The win was San Antonio’s 55th of the season, the 19th season in franchise history with at least 55 wins since joining the NBA in 1976. Only the Los Angeles Lakers have more 55-win seasons over the same stretch, 20. They are just the sixth team in league history to get their 55th win in their first 65 games. Of course, the fifth team to do so, this seasons’ Golden State Warriors, leads the Spurs in the race for the top seed in the Western Conference.
A game against the Warriors on March 19 will conclude the five-game home stand that began against the Bulls and it’s what the Spurs face over the next four games of the longest home stand of the season that has the potential to really set them up for the stretch run and playoffs. Next up are the Oklahoma City Thunder, No. 3 in the Western Conference; the Los Angeles Clippers, No. 4 in the West; The Portland Trail Blazers, a potential first-round playoff foe, and the Warriors, who are on a path to the best record in NBA history.
“(It’s been) an unbelievable year for us so far,” Duncan said, “Hopefully, we can end it out that way. We’ve got a big home stretch here and some very good teams coming in here so it will be a good stand for us to be able to hold on to that.”
Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.