On those rare occasions when the NBA’s schedule makers match one team against another without an intervening game, the team that lost Game 1 is presumed to have an emotional edge over the team that won Game 1.
For the Spurs, the fact that the Utah Jazz on Tuesday not only gave them their first loss of the season, 106-91, but also did so on an AT&T Center home court on which the Spurs lost only once last season, was an abasement too low to tolerate.
Retribution came in a 100-86 win over the Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City thanks to Kawhi Leonard continuing to play some of the best basketball in the NBA and point guard Patty Mills easing any doubts that may have lingered about what the Spurs will do this season until Tony Parker is able to approximate the play that has made him a five-time All-NBA selection.
“They came out and kicked our backsides (Tuesday) so we had to be ready today,” said Mills, who scored 16 points in a starting role against the Jazz. “We had two days off to reflect and recover and let the bodies re-charge a bit, and we came out at the start of the game with the right mindset to come out and put on a performance tonight.”
Leonard finished Friday’s game with 29 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists. He made 9-of-18 shots and was perfect on 10 free throws. He is 53-for-55 at the foul line this season, 96.3% and has scored at least 20 points in all six games, averaging 28.5 points per game.
Mills made 4-of-7 3-point shots on his way to his 16 points and had three assists in a starting role he will retain until Parker returns from a stint on the injured list with a sore right knee. Parker’s injury does not appear to be serious, and he is expected to return in approximately one week.
Mills scored 18 points in his first start of the season against the Miami Heat on Sunday, and 16 in Friday’s win. Though he has made his NBA career as a scorer rather than a pure point guard, he has learned to run the Spurs offense with requisite efficiency, approaching the starting role just as he did his role as an off-the-bench energizer.
“It’s that same mindset,” he told FoxSports Southwest broadcasters Bill Land and Sean Elliott in an on-court interview after Friday’s game. “Not a lot changes. It’s the same game preparation, trying to focus on what we do. But it’s just about being aggressive and mentally strong to be able to run the team. I’ve been developing those for a while now, and it’s good to get out on the floor and get going.”
His teammates, especially those who have teamed with him on one of the NBA’s most productive bench units, have learned to rely on what Mills brings to each game.
“I don’t even need to say what he means to our team,” veteran guard Manu Ginobili told reporters in a televised post-game interview. “He’s usually been the engine from the bench but now, with the new situation with Tony out for we-don’t-know-how-long, he’s going to be responsible to run the team. And the way we play, with the focus on Kawhi and LaMarcus (Aldridge) drawing so much attention, he’s going to find his shots. He’s putting a lot of pressure on opponent point guards. I think we are going to be okay.”
Leonard played only 31 minutes in the Friday victory because he dominated the third period so thoroughly he was needed in the fourth quarter for only the first four minutes and 52 seconds. He responded to a third-quarter rally by the Jazz that cut a 16-point Spurs lead to seven by scoring 11 points over the next four minutes and assisting on another Spurs basket, a 3-pointer by Mills.
Leonard’s ability to take over games has been the most encouraging aspect of a brutal Spurs schedule that will cram a seventh game into 12 days when they play the Los Angeles Clippers at AT&T Center on Saturday night. It seems the 6-foot-7 forward can impose his will on a game whenever required.
“(It’s) just coming in with the right mindset, knowing that there is going to be more attention on me,” Leonard said. “Coach Pop(ovich) is going to call my plays for me but it is not just me. My teammates trust in me, giving me the ball in the right spot.”
As much as his teammates trust him, they remain amazed by what they have seen from him in crunch time situations this season.
“Just when you think he can’t surprise us any more, he does,” said Mills. “It’s unbelievable to watch the amount of effort and energy he puts in, game after game and night after night. So, just another great game for him, and you’re just glad you’re on the same team as him.”
A Spur since 2002, Ginobili understands that Leonard’s aggression on the court when games are tight is the natural progression of a player embracing superstardom.
“He’s been taking over since we started (the season),” Ginobili said. “He’s averaging 29 points a game, with very high percentages, and taking over when we need him the most. He’s been incredible.
“He added to his game the ability to draw fouls constantly and he already had his shot from last season. He’s growing up. He‘s confident and he feels like he owns the team. That’s why he’s taking responsibility and doing the things he’s doing.”
Friday’s win pushed the Spurs’ road record to 4-0.