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Sleeping Spurs Begin to Stir

Just when you thought they were done, San Antonio is back…

After scoring a season-high 32 points on a torrid 13-of-19 from the field, having just led his team to a fifth-straight win, on a mission to continue to climb the Western Conference ranks, Tony Parker didn’t take the credit: “It starts,” he said, “with Kawhi.”

And indeed it does.

Sunday afternoon, Kawhi Leonard was the only player on the Spurs who played more than 30 minutes. Parker, believe it or not, ran up that scoring line while totaling only 30 minutes of playing time. Leonard scored (20), rebounded (eight) and created havoc on the defensive end (three steals). Gregg Popovich is up to his usual tricks—distributing playing time, distributing scoring—but in Leonard he has a player who acts as a youthful burst of pure energy, a determined force on the defensive side of the basketball who sets a tone for a roster full of veterans.

Leonard leads the Spurs in minutes per game at 31.8, but over the last five games he has played 34.4. He leads the Spurs in scoring with 15.5 points per game—only the Lakers have a leading scorer who averages fewer points in the Western Conference—but in the last five games he has averaged 21 per outing, and he has done it while shooting 55 percent from the field. On the defensive end, Leonard has had three nights of three steals and three nights of at least two blocks in the last five games. A freak, a beast, a force to be reckoned with—that’s the kind of basketball he’s playing right now, and what’s not a coincidence is the fact that the last five games have all been wins for the Spurs.

What should frighten other Western Conference teams is not only Leonard. Nor is it only the fact that Popovich remains a genius, the best active coach in the NBA. It’s not even that San Antonio is getting hot and healthy at the right time, or that they are finding ways to keep the stars rested, or that they could conceivably climb to the four-seed in the rankings. The most frightening part of this team at the moment is their ability to win drastically different types of basketball games.

Against Denver, the Spurs won a wild shootout, 120-111. All five starters scored in double-figures, and three players scored seven or more points off the bench. San Antonio as a team dished out 24 assists. By contrast, Sunday afternoon against the Bulls, also a win, also a high offensive output with 116, the Spurs assisted only 14 times.

Against Phoenix, who of course is on a pretty terrible slide but nonetheless still leads the league in scoring, San Antonio’s offense got a night off and the defense played the starring role, holding the high-flying Suns to just 74 points and forcing Phoenix into 18 turnovers.

The Spurs have a heck of a schedule left—eight games remaining against Western Conference playoff teams, as well as dates with Cleveland, Toronto and Atlanta—but when they’re playing this kind of basketball, when Popovich is dialed in this much, when Parker is distributing, when Leonard is setting the tone defensively, when four, five, six or seven players are scoring in double-digits, it really doesn’t matter who they play.

Most people—myself included—had tossed San Antonio out as a possible contender. Golden State, we say. Maybe Atlanta. Maybe Cleveland. Those are the top teams. Dark-horse contenders might be Memphis, Houston or Oklahoma City even. But rarely have we mentioned the Spurs. I think it’s time that changed.

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