On the night he learned he will be in the starting lineup for the Western Conference All-Star team for a second straight season, Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard also discovered he may have to do even more to carry the team for the next few weeks.
Starting center Pau Gasol suffered a fractured left metacarpal in his left hand when he collided with teammate Kyle Anderson during the pregame layup line before the Spurs scored a 118-104 win over the Denver Nuggets at AT&T Center on Thursday.
The win pushed the Spurs record to 33-9, but losing Gasol, likely for a few weeks, presents the first real setback to the team’s progression toward another 60-win season.
No timetable has been given for Gasol’s return, but Leonard understands the 7-foot veteran from Spain is apt to miss considerable time. He suffered a similar injury during the 2013-14 season and missed 14 games, more than four weeks. Ironically, Leonard’s injury also occurred in late January, minimizing the number of missed games because his recuperation time included the week-long All-Star Game break.
If Gasol also were to be out four weeks, he would miss 15 games, counting Thursday’s game against Denver.
The burden of making up for the loss of a player who averaged 11.7 points per game, a team-high 7.9 rebounds and a team-high 1.15 blocks per game will be shared, but much of the load will fall on the broad shoulders of Leonard, whose second All-Star starting assignment, announced before tipoff, resulted from voting by fans, a select media panel, and all NBA players.
Leonard responded Thursday with 34 points, five rebounds, four assists, two steals and a blocked shot. It was his fifth straight game of 30 or more points, the longest such streak since 1986.
Leonard did most of his damage in the second half, when he scored 21 points. He was especially forceful in the first six minutes of the third quarter, when the Spurs broke open a close game by outscoring Denver, 20-6, all without benefit of having Gregg Popovich on the bench. Referee Bennie Adams ejected the Spurs coach with a minute-and-a-half left in the first half.
“It makes it a lot easier when you can run a little bit and get the ball to Kawhi and get out of the way,” said David Lee, who started in Gasol’s spot Thursday and grabbed a season-high 16 rebounds. “That makes it pretty easy. He did an unbelievable job in the second half and we tried to get him as many shots as possible.”
When Gasol left the floor clutching his left hand after the pregame injury, it left the Spurs without two starters. Point guard Tony Parker already had been scratched because of pain in his left foot. His replacement was even better than Lee, who filled in for Gasol. Rookie Dejounte Murray made his third start of the season and scored a season high 24 points, on just 11 shots. The team’s youngest player, 20-year-old Murray, made 7-of-11 shots, including 3-of-5 from 3-point range, and made all seven of his free throws.
Popovich provided the key to Murray’s success during a pre-game visit about an hour before tipoff to inform him he would be starting because Parker’s foot was sore.
“He told me, ‘Have fun, it’s just basketball; just stay ready to play,’” Murray said.
Murray has shuttled back and forth between Austin and San Antonio this season, playing the occasional game with the Austin Spurs of the NBA D-League in order to get game experience. He admits resenting the assignment when it first was broached in November. Now, he understands how it helped him.
“I ain’t going to lie: I was mad the first time,” Murray said. “It’s just human, it’s normal. But as I started playing and playing, I was actually thankful for it because if I wasn’t playing, I would just be sitting. So, that’s basically just wasting. I got to play 30-plus minutes, get reps, and just have fun.”
The fun continued on Thursday and Murray’s teammates were thrilled, for him and the team.
Leonard, who was 20 during his rookie season, has helped his new teammate with his adjustment to the NBA after a single season of college ball at University of Washington.
“I was where he was five years ago: 20 years old and drafted by the Spurs,” Leonard said. “I just told him to keep working hard and stay at it and even if he messes up, keep going. It’s not about now. It’s about the future. That’s how you learn from your mistakes.
“He did a great job tonight. He keeps at it every day; works hard; watches the game when he’s not playing; always keeps his head in the game and mindset ready.”
Facing their first small crisis of the season, all the Spurs will have to keep their heads in every game without one of their key players.
Expect Leonard, now clearly their leader-by-example, to make certain they do.