OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kawhi Leonard drilled a pair of free throws at the 2:29 mark of the third quarter, before walking off the court to the locker room, never to return Thursday night as the San Antonio Spurs suffered a 102-92 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In many ways, Leonard embodied what the team endured for three brutal quarters at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich later revealed Leonard "got hit in the mouth or in the cheek or in the head or something."
That's precisely what happened to the whole squad: Oklahoma City flat out slugged the Spurs in the mouth.
"In general, they were the most aggressive team," Popovich said, "and nine out of 10 times that's what wins basketball games besides making shots and not making mistakes. I thought their aggressiveness took us out of a lot of stuff; their double-teaming, their hedging, their trapping, whatever you want to call it. It was aggressive, and we didn't move the ball against that very well. So, we ended up with either turnovers or every time we'd get within seven, we'd turn it over or shoot a contested shot, or possibly give up a second-chance point for them being on the offensive board, and that was the downfall in the game."
Team officials explained that Leonard wasn't placed in the concussion protocol, but declined to divulge whether the MVP candidate would be available for Saturday's matchup at home against the Golden State Warriors.
After a run of four consecutive 30-point outings, Leonard scored a team-high 19 points on 6-of-15 shooting through the majority of three quarters against the Thunder. The scoring output snapped a streak of 11 games in which he scored at least 20 points. It was the longest such run of his career. The Spurs, meanwhile, watched their NBA-best nine-game winning streak come crashing down like so many of its players did that night on the strength of Oklahoma City's aggression.
This game featured just two lead changes all night. San Antonio's largest advantage was four, while Oklahoma City roared to a 20-point edge with just 2:54 remaining.
Several players declined to cite fatigue as a factor, but the Spurs had just captured four consecutive come-from-behind victories, including a rally from 28 down the night before at home against the Sacramento Kings.
"I don't think we got a good rhythm tonight," David Lee said. "I think you could look at them as having the most depth inside of any team in the league, especially from the last time we played them having [Enes] Kanter back in the lineup as well as adding [Taj] Gibson. They did a good job on the boards, and they're especially tough in this building. For whatever reason, we didn't have our best night. We've got to look at that. If I had to say one thing, I don't think we moved the ball as well as we have. We played a lot of iso ball, which is great when shots are going in. I think we're at our best when everyone's involved and moving the ball. When you have a team as big and strong as they are, when you move the ball and everybody's cutting, I think they're less effective. Because they've got to scramble and move now versus when they can stay at home, and get in the paint, and now there's five guys around you. I think all of us were guilty of that tonight. It's something we've got to change next time we see them."
If not, San Antonio can expect to see the same result.
It's worth noting the Spurs played without point guard Tony Parker (back tightness), Kyle Anderson (knee) and Manu Ginobili (rest) as it appears the team passed out a few strategic breaks in anticipation of Saturday's matchup with Golden State.
Still, the team admitted it didn't send Leonard back out in the fourth quarter against Oklahoma City because the reality is it wouldn't have made a difference.
"They'd beat us anyway," Popovich said. "If Kawhi would have played in the fourth, if they continued to do what they were doing and we continued to do what we were doing, they would have won anyway. We'd never make excuses. We got our butts kicked."
Oklahoma City out-rebounded the Spurs 48-40, but the visitors won the battle for points in the paint 46-40. The Thunder, which needed a win after losing four in a row, certainly owned San Antonio on the boards more than the statistics indicate. But the home team also aggressively defended San Antonio, and the Spurs struggled to respond appropriately to Oklahoma City's physicality.
The Thunder set a physical tone early with Steven Adams shoving Spurs guard Danny Green in the back, which led to double technical fouls as the move resulted in a small skirmish that also involved LaMarcus Aldridge.
Green declined to discuss the incident, mentioning all he'd say is that Adams is "a chippy player."
Maybe the combination of all the comeback victories and this latest back-to-back took a toll.
"You've still got to play basketball. Nobody feels sorry for us. Nobody cares," Green said. "Naturally, some guys are going to be fatigued. It's that part of the season. You've got to suck it up until playoff time."
With the Spurs sitting two games behind Golden State for the top seed in the Western Conference, Lee said there's an opportunity ripe for "the taking," especially when considering the teams play twice this month in San Antonio with both matchups being the second of back-to-back games for the Warriors. But Green and Popovich have said the Spurs never worry about seeding.
"Home court is great, but getting better is the most important thing for us. It's always been, [as well as] being healthy at the right time of the year," Green said. "There's been times in the past where Pop's rested guys no matter what the seeding is. If we know we're in the playoffs, we're in the playoffs. OK, cool. We feel we have the guys, the capability, the potential, the roster, the staff to compete with anybody and beat anybody on the road or home. Want to be champions? You have to win on the road. So regardless, the seed doesn't matter. You still have to win. The 1-seed is not really a factor for us. We just want to be healthy and playing our best basketball and getting better. Tonight, I think we might have taken a step back."
Perhaps that negative turn results in a positive moving forward for San Antonio. Aldridge said "A loss always makes you look in more," and that the team "definitely tries to respond better after a tough loss."
Russell Westbrook (23 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists) recorded his first career triple-double against the Spurs. The only two opponents Westbrook hasn't yet posted a triple-double against now are the Chicago Bulls and the Charlotte Hornets.
As for Leonard, Aldridge said he's "still wondering what's going on" with the Spurs superstar player.
All he's got to do is look at the rest of the team, as it suffered the same fate as its leader.
"We didn't bring the toughness that we needed tonight," Aldridge said. "They beat us on loose balls. They beat us on offensive rebounds. We've just got to be better."