DALLAS -- The discussion looked tense at first, but laughter from San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich belied the optics inside American Airlines Arena, especially when he walked away from a giggling Kawhi Leonard near the bench with 6:31 left in a 95-89 loss to the Mavericks.
"We were just talking about what was going on and if I was going to play more," Leonard said. "We just had a little laugh."
That accompanied a collective sigh of relief in San Antonio. Leonard played 16 minutes in his season debut Tuesday night after sitting out all of the preseason and each of the team's 27 previous games while recovering from right quadriceps tendinopathy. Popovich pulled Leonard in the third quarter, after he had scored 13 points on 6 of 12 shooting to go with six rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block. Leonard finished as one of just five Spurs to end their nights with a positive plus-minus (8).
A member of the Spurs' athletic training staff and team security man Mark Assad escorted Leonard to the locker room with 1:16 remaining in the third quarter so that Leonard could get a jump-start on treatment, after playing in his first contest since May 14.
"I thought he was wonderful," Popovich said. "He's trying to get some rust off and that kind of thing. Obviously, he's confident. He's a heck of a player, and it was really frustrating for him to just start getting loose and have to come off the court."
Despite Leonard's presence, San Antonio maintained its same commitment to feeding LaMarcus Aldridge in the post. Leonard mentioned at the start of training camp in September that the team would try to play more through Aldridge this season, and that's exactly what happened against the Mavericks. San Antonio passed to Aldridge in the post on its first two possessions, and the Spurs' first two buckets of the night came from Aldridge and Leonard.
Leonard knocked down his first three attempts for six points in the opening quarter, and whenever he posted up Harrison Barnes down low, Aldridge made sure to find him.
Leonard didn't take his first shot until the 9:15 mark in the first quarter, and Popovich subbed him out of action with 7:14 left in the quarter for veteran Manu Ginobili.
The forward returned to the floor to start the second quarter, but Popovich pulled him out again with 6:25 remaining in the first half.
He started the second half on the floor but left for good with 6:31 left in the third.
"He looked good," said Aldridge, who led the Spurs with 23 points and 13 rebounds. "It's going to take him time to get back to the Kawhi that we know. I thought he looked good. First game in a long time. He looked comfortable out there making plays. He brings so many things to the game that we don't have right now. He's a great defender. He can score a number of ways, and he can make plays. We definitely miss that."
Despite Leonard putting together decent numbers in his debut, the forward admitted to suffering through some rust. Leonard hasn't yet practiced with the entire team for a full workout. Ginobili said Leonard had been "practicing a lot with guys who don't play much, or the video guys, stuff like that." In some areas, it showed.
"Definitely," Leonard said when asked if he felt rusty. "Just coming from not playing, and then jumping into an NBA game is definitely a different feel than what I've been doing throughout my rehab process."
Shooting guard Danny Green said that defensively the Spurs "were late on some of our rotations." He added that the most significant challenge Leonard faces is "just getting a rhythm."
"I think most guys either don't have their legs under them or they have too much legs, where the shot's a little stronger," Green said. "It's also getting used to mentally talking, communicating. Our rotations tonight were a little slow. So hopefully, [we can] find that rhythm, because we've got a tough one coming up [on Friday at Houston]. Kawhi, I think he jumped in and it didn't look like he missed much of a beat."
Popovich declined to divulge how he plans to deploy Leonard moving forward, but it appears Leonard will remain on a minutes restriction for the foreseeable future. When Parker returned in late November from ruptured quadriceps tendon surgery that resulted in a seven-month layoff, Popovich restricted his minutes; it's a practice Popovich is still employing with Parker. Expect something similar with Leonard.
"I'm not going to say how I'm going to play him, [but] he can only have so many minutes," Popovich said. "So that's the way it is."
As for Leonard, there wasn't much about the game he didn't miss during a 212-day layoff.
"I'm just happy to be able to be out there, just to play the game and enjoy the things I missed -- missing shots, losing games, making mistakes -- just everything," Leonard said. "I understand the situation that I'm in, and we're thinking about down the road. I didn't play 30-plus minutes tonight. So, I don't know where my conditioning is. I felt good tonight playing my 16 minutes. So, we'll see what happens down the road. Just being out there to enjoy the moment and the Dallas atmosphere with my team and compete was just great for me."