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Leonard scored 39 points, capping the performance with a 6.5-second sequence of brilliance on both ends of the floor to key the 112-110 victory and elevate his standing in the debate over the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award.
“They’ve been very smooth,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told ESPN.com in explaining the team’s various transitions over the years. “The fact they’ve been so smooth is just a testament to the character of the people involved. Their awareness of the situation they’re in, their ability to have gotten over themselves and know where they are at that point in their career, and to look around and be knowledgeable enough to know what the newcomer can give — well, that’s what we’ve had all the way down the line. Those guys understanding that and wanting that to happen.
Informed he’d been named a starter on the Western Conference All-Star team for the second year in a row just prior to the San Antonio Spurs’ 118-104 win over the Denver Nuggets on Thursday, Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard proceeded to provide the status quo.
A six-year veteran, Leonard is set to make his second consecutive All-Star appearance and becomes the fifth player in Spurs history to be selected as an All-Star on more than one occasion, joining Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Alvin Robertson and Gervin.
Leonard entered the game Thursday having put together 12 contests in which he has scored 30 points or more, owning the most 30-point performances by a Spur in the first half of a season since 1995-96, when Robinson produced 13 such outings. Leonard cobbled together another 30-point outing Thursday night against the Nuggets (34 points), and is the only player in the league averaging at least 20 points while connecting on better than 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line.
Fidgeting with a game book, Danny Green widened his gaze upon noticing he hadn’t played 38 minutes “in a long time.” To Green’s right, LaMarcus Aldridge slouched in his locker wrapped in towels and discount nba jerseys and jokingly wondered whether he’d “be able to walk” the next day. Across the room, Kawhi Leonard stood up and pulled on a hoodie.
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Leonard currently owns the highest winning percentage in NBA history (284-80) out of players who have played at least 350 games. Leonard’s current scoring average is the highest on the Spurs since Duncan averaged 25.5 points during his 2001-02 MVP season. In addition, Leonard has scored in double figures in 74 consecutive games, which ranks as the longest streak by a Spur since Duncan’s 75 consecutive double-figure scoring games in 2005.
Saturday was the first time this season that the Cavaliers lost when entering the fourth quarter with a lead. They were 26-0 in those games entering this matchup. Kawhi Leonard’s offensive dominance late in the game was a big reason for the Cavaliers’ first such loss of the season.
James did everything he could to come out with the win in the fourth quarter, but his teammates came up short. He scored 10 of the team’s 18 points and was 3-of-4 from the floor, including a 3-pointer. The rest of the team was 3-for-16 from the floor and made one of nine attempts from beyond the arc. James’ teammates went 0-for-4 off his passes in the fourth quarter.
The 3-pointer James made in the fourth was from 30 feet out. He is 2-of-3 on 30-foot game-tying or go-ahead field goals in the final minute of the fourth quarter and overtime this season. He had been 0-of-5 on such shots entering this season.
“It’s the beginning of the season. We still can get better,” Leonard said. “We want to keep going, moving forward. It’s a team game. I’m going to need these guys in the playoffs to play their best basketball and be confident when they get there. [I’m] just picking and choosing where I shoot the ball, run the offense and get guys involved. I see how the defense is playing me and just go from there.”
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Leonard connected on 5 of 7 in the third quarter and 2 of 3 from 3-point range, in addition to sinking all four of his free throws, also contributing four rebounds and an assist. Over the first three games, Leonard has averaged 28.3 points, 3.6 assists and 4 steals. In addition, Leonard hasn’t missed any of his 28 free throws. Leonard didn’t need Kobe Bryant’s help, either.
Although Leonard entered the contest Saturday as the two-time reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, the Spurs didn’t use him to guard Booker until late in the fourth quarter. The Spurs spent the majority of the game using Parker to guard Booker, and the 20-year-old made sure to capitalize.
Booker scored 26 points in the second half, yet San Antonio led by 5 (85-80) to start the fourth quarter. The Spurs actually led by 11 with 1:22 remaining in the third, only to watch Booker and the Suns whittle down the lead. San Antonio entered the game 26-2 when leading after three quarters this season, and its only losses under those circumstances had taken place in its past two defeats (Tuesday vs. Milwaukee and Jan. 1 at the Hawks). Make that three, courtesy of Phoenix.
That’s because in finally downing the Clippers — a team that had already beaten San Antonio twice this season — the Spurs discovered they don’t always have to lean solely on Leonard to prosper in the most trying of situations.