SAN ANTONIO -- Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard showed no lingering effects on Monday from the head shot that sent him into the league’s concussion protocol, as evidenced by the game-high 31 points he racked up to lead San Antonio past the Atlanta Hawks 107-99.
Leonard likened his return to “any other game.”
But moving forward, it has to be more than that, as Leonard expects his workload to increase, with LaMarcus Aldridge out indefinitely due to minor heart arrhythmia. Same thing for bigs David Lee, Dewayne Dedmon and Pau Gasol, all of whom need to ramp up the production for the Spurs to maintain their hold on the top seed in the West, which they captured Monday by virtue of the win over the Hawks.
“It’s going to increase a lot,” Leonard said of his workload sans Aldridge. “We’re missing a rebounder and another scorer that causes a double-team. He helps me to get easy shots. We’ve got a ton of guys that can fill his place and know our offense. We’re already deep down in this season. We’ve just got to roll with it. We hope he gets better. We don’t want to rush him back [because] that’s something serious with his heart. We just want him to get better and feel comfortable with himself about stepping out here on the floor again.”
Aldridge visited with doctors on Monday for a series of tests, and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said the team will just “wait until he comes back and assess everything,” before the team devises a plan for a return to the court -- if that’s in the cards. Aldridge was expected to be back in San Antonio by late Monday night or Tuesday morning.
In the meantime, San Antonio’s big men continue to try their best to replace the five-time All-Star’s production.
Lee came closest to accomplishing the feat with a 14-point night against the Hawks that included six rebounds, four assists and a block. Dedmon contributed four points and eight rebounds, while Gasol scored 13 points to go with 10 rebounds and four blocks.
“It was great to have Kawhi back tonight, obviously leading the way,” Lee said. “The rest of us filled in and did the best we could. My job when I came here was to be ready for any circumstance. I’ve played, started for years and years in the league; a couple hundred games in a row I think I started. Then I’ve come off the bench a bunch and found a way to be successful. My job is when my number is called, no matter what that role is, it’s to play hard and play smart.
"Of course, all of us, including myself, wish LaMarcus the best and hope he’s back the next game or whatever it is. I’m gonna try to do my best to fill in if that’s not the case.”
A 12-year veteran, Lee has played for five NBA teams, and he won a championship in 2015 with the Golden State Warriors. Lee started in Aldridge’s place the past two games, and he contributed double-digit performances in both outings.
Popovich joked that he was reluctant to praise Lee because he likes to keep the veteran “angry,” as apparently that’s the key to coaxing the best from his player.
“Well, I’ve seen him play over time, and he’s definitely not a minimum player, for sure, and he’s proven that to a lot of people, hopefully,” Popovich said. “It’s just a matter of sometimes circumstances are more important or affect your life more than you, individually, and that happens to all of us. It’s called life, and he’s worked through it and come here and done a heck of a job.”
As Aldridge’s replacement, Lee provides some energy on offense, and he’s a better defender in San Antonio’s system than he was at previous NBA stops throughout his career. Lee won’t open up the offense for other players by drawing teams. He doesn’t possess Aldridge’s uncanny ability on pick-and-pop opportunities, and he isn’t likely to rebound or defend as well as the regular starter on a consistent basis.
But the combination of Dedmon and Lee provides the Spurs plenty of athleticism. Gasol has been coming off the bench and providing a spark offensively with his sharpshooting. Gasol connected on 2-of-4 from 3-point range against the Hawks.
“[Lee] and Dewayne [Dedmon] have been great. They have been key for us, especially with [Aldridge] being out and Pau coming off the bench,” Spurs shooting guard Danny Green said. “Those guys have done a great job on the boards and altering and blocking shots. We’re usually last in offensive rebounding, but I think they brought us up a notch or two. They’ve done a great job on the boards, getting there and getting us second opportunities. We always respected [Lee]. He had always played great against us. He was well-respected, used both hands. Injuries had plagued him, but he’s been fighting through the little bumps and bruises. He doesn’t want to sit out.”
None of them do, which is why Aldridge’s absence at the moment could turn into a blessing in disguise, as it provides Lee, Dedmon and Gasol the opportunity to enhance the already solid chemistry they’ve developed with players in the starting group and the rotational contributors.
“We contained them, we communicated well,” Gasol said of the team’s effort against Atlanta. “We worked together, helped each other, scrambled. We made some big plays.”
Lee learned firsthand the importance of team depth during his time at Golden State, and he said the Spurs bigs will “have to do it by committee” to fill Aldridge’s shoes during this time of uncertainty.
“I think it’s something that we’re gonna be capable of doing,” Lee said. “Having depth really does matter in this league, especially as you come down to playoff time. When we won our championship in Golden State, Kevin Love and Kyrie [Irving] go down for Cleveland, and it becomes a little bit of a different series. Part of this, as the playoffs come and moving on to the playoffs, [it’s] a matter of just staying healthy as a team, getting the proper rest and things like that. It takes a little bit of luck in that category.
"So we’ll just try to get as healthy as possible and, for right now, fill in as best as we can.”