Last Monday, the sixth of March, Kawhi Leonard pushed his name from MVP-also ran through dark horse territory to hipster pick for the honor. Of course this was in large part the result of The Sequence
KAWHI WITH AN MVP SEQUENCE
— This Guy (@ze_martino) March 7, 2017
Kawhi putting the H in Hero pic.twitter.com/r9vcc08rN9
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) March 7, 2017
After filling every NBA podcast and radio show with some content, Kawhi promptly sat for the Wednesday night game against the lowly Kings. Manu and David Lee sparked a comeback, and the Spurs continued to chase the Dubs, who were off taking some Ls of their own.
Thursday Kawhi was hit in the head as Russ Westbrook probably sealed his MVP candidacy with his 32nd triple-double at home against a short-handed Spurs squad.
In the Saturday showdown with the Warriors, the marquee game of the calendar turned into a glorified summer league game. The Spurs won, the bench guys got good run and the Spurs found themselves a half-game behind the Warriors but without LaMarcus Aldridge and with Kawhi enduring the NBA’s concussion protocol (oh and Tony Parker out also).
That brings us to last night, in which Leonard returned to lead the squad with 31-points while the squad fought through 23 turnovers.
Pop does a lot of minutes-managing to keep the team healthy for the important games — playoffs — but an old squad and bad luck do not make it easy. Yes, Kawhi is right on the cusp of his prime, but LMA, Tony, Manu, and Pau are on the wrong side of theirs. While more than a few people are optimistic about LMA’s ‘minor’ heart arrhythmia, the chance remains that he could be out indefinitely during a period of time that is supposed to be ‘sharpening up’. David Lee has been great in giving the team the contributions of a younger Boris Diaw, but he was pulling in double-doubles against he Kings, and looking good against the Hawks.
The Warriors scrimmage was unfortunate not only from an entertainment perspective, but also from a pre-playoff test standpoint. The Dubs aren’t fully operational without Durant, but running out Dedmon / Lee duo against Draymond would have been telling and could have provided some needed insight. I seriously doubt that Pop is worried about that, given the health of his guys, however.
Tony will likely be ready enough for the playoffs, but his contributions are cerebral and minimal at the moment. As Patti Mills fights through his slump, he has taken on much more of the floor general role. He his helped by the fact that Kawhi does so much of the ball-handling anyway. The offense is (relatively) simple when Kawhi is running isolations or PNRs anyway and Patti fills in nicely as a floor spacer. Tony is better when he can pull up for jumpers than catching and shooting.
I do not know how useful all the bench time was this week. It was nice to see and I am talking myself into it, but we all know that the playoffs mean shorter benches. I cannot imagine Bryn Forbes gunning in Houston in Game 4 you know? Still, the lack of superstars and MVP-candidates in the lineup forced the Spurs into that 2014-like ball movement and shooting game. The weakened Warriors were not familiar enough with each other to defend it properly, but it was great to see such old Spurs looks. Passing, moving, hitting wide-open jumpers.
LMA is a weirdly under appreciated player on this team. True Hoop podcast noted that he is hitting his midrange J at a below-average clip, but that fails to acknowledge that he is shooting that as a release valve often. He hits it at a regular enough clip to keep teams honest, and provide spacing. When he is feeling good and active, he is a bully inside that sets the tone in a very 90s-NBA way. I realize this is weird to say about a guy who has a reputation for settling for jumpers and avoiding contact, but when you watch Gasol flop around and get pushed around, you appreciate seeing LaMarcus put his shoulder into a defender and get a bucket.
Speaking of Pau, for all the discussion about his lack of lateral movement, he played solid defense against the Hawks. Sure, you can probably chalk that up to the terrible offensive game that is the ghost of Dwight Howard, but it still should be acknowledged. He blocked and changed shots last night, which is in his wheelhouse. He will never be David Robinson defensively, but he does enough on the second unit to get wins.
Finally, let us acknowledge the leadership role Manu has taken this week. Lots of stuff has happened and Manu has been a rock out there. That is the kind of thing that gets you the first seed in this league.