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Kawhi Leonard Puts Spurs on his Shoulders

Don’t look now, but at their best, the Spurs might be the best team in basketball…

MVP candidate Stephen Curry dribbled the ball up the court the way he does—gracefully, skillfully, almost playfully—but instead of dribbling the ball through his legs, behind his back and shaming a defender to the floor, he forgot something: the ball. When he turned around, he saw Kawhi Leonard barreling down the lane, his monstrous right hand palming the basketball for a single-handed flush. It was that kind of night for Curry, who finished a dazzling 5-10 beyond the arc but turned the ball over four times, and it was that kind of night for Leonard, who tallied seven steals to go along with 26 points in only 24 minutes.

It was that kind of night for the Spurs, too. Two facts stand out about their emphatic 107-92 win. The first fact: Steve Kerr entered the night after setting the record for wins by a first-year head coach. His prize? Playing against San Antonio, against Gregg Popovich who—as you’ll know if you’ve read some of my pieces—I think is the greatest basketball coach of any level, at any point in history. The Spurs trounced the Warriors, which leads to the second fact: The Spurs are the only team in the NBA to beat the Warriors multiple times.

The Spurs are just one of several teams heating up in the Western Conference right now. San Antonio has won nine of their last 10 and 17 of their last 20. They’re healthy and surging. Three other teams are nearly just as hot. The Warriors themselves have won nine of 10, and as Curry said after Sunday night’s game, the loss to the Spurs was virtually the only game they’ve not played competitively almost the entire season. They’ll get over it. The Los Angeles Clippers, also healthy, have won nine of their last 10 games, too. And not to be denied, the Houston Rockets, who just got Dwight Howard back from injury, have won eight of their last 10.

In other words, the race to the playoffs and the playoffs themselves are going to be stupidly, wonderfully entertaining. But the question I keep asking myself, the question last night reminded me of, is this: How far can the Spurs go? Is this finally the year that marks the beginning of their regime’s decline? One thing is certain: San Antonio is healthy, and they’ve returned to their system that won them a ring just a year ago.

Sunday night, 10 players on San Antonio’s roster logged 13 minutes or more, but not one player played more than 30 minutes. Tim Duncan played 24 minutes. Tony Parker, 23. Manu Ginobili, 22. Just like last year, Popovich and the Spurs are bucking the trend. Unlike Cleveland or Houston or even, in a sense, Golden State, San Antonio doesn’t rely on star power to win games. (Although Leonard is rapidly approaching superstar level.) They spread the scoring and spread the playing time unlike anybody else.

The biggest difference between last year and this year? A season ago, the Spurs clinched the No. 1 seed in the conference, while this year, they’re 12 back from Golden State. (True, although they’d be the sixth seed if the playoffs started today, they’re only two games behind the Rockets in second place in the Western Conference.) We’ll see if San Antonio can do it again, and we’ll see how much home-court advantage does or doesn’t matter, but what we do know is that they’re the only team in the league to have beaten the Warriors multiple times. What we do know is that when Leonard plays that kind of defense and when the Spurs are hot with that kind of chemistry, they just might be—and stop me if you’ve heard this before—the best team in basketball.

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