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Kawhi Leonard hits milestone in Spurs' win over Pelicans

SAN ANTONIO -- Just a sixth-year veteran, San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard started his 300th game Saturday, leading the club with a game-high 20 points in its home-opening 98-79 triumph over the New Orleans Pelicans.

The victory established a milestone for Leonard, who now owns more wins (235) than any player in history through his first 300 starts. Byron Scott ranks No. 2 with 231 wins, followed by Danny Ainge at 229, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

"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."

On a night in which San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich held out two starters, Danny Green (strained quadriceps) and Tony Parker (rest), along with veteran Manu Ginobili (rest), Leonard started abnormally slow, missing his first four attempts. Instead of pressing and forcing up shots, Leonard patiently took what New Orleans' defense allowed, and contributed in other ways with two assists and a pair of steals.

Leonard's last miss of the opening quarter -- a 25-footer -- came with 2:16 left to play. Leonard finally took his next shot -- a driving, two-handed dunk -- with 2:22 remaining before halftime to give San Antonio a 10-point lead (48-38).

Leonard didn't finally impose his will until the third quarter, outscoring the Pelicans 16-15 by himself. The 16 points Leonard scored in the third marked a career high for him in a quarter, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"Just coming in, they were being very aggressive on those pick and rolls with me," Leonard said. "Their defense was collapsing very quickly. [I was] just getting the ball very slowly, seeing how they were playing me. I just got a feel for what they were doing in the third quarter. I made some shots and kept going from there."

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.

"Well, he can't become very much more," Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said of Leonard's near constant improvement. "It's frightening already. I would say that if you took a guy when he first came into the league and the level he is now, I don't know if there's ever been a player who has improved more than he has, from a standpoint of his ballhandling and shooting."

Leonard didn't need Kobe Bryant's help, either.

Contrary to rumors, Leonard didn't spend any time in the offseason working with the future Hall of Famer, he said, despite Spurs coach Gregg Popovich asking the former Los Angeles Laker last season to mentor his rising star.

"I didn't work out with Kobe," Leonard said. "I don't know where that came from. I wish I could have. He told me during the All-Star [game] that he will work with me. He's retired, so I just wanted to give him some personal space. Maybe next summer."

Popovich told ESPN.com last season that "just before about every game, I'll tell [Leonard], 'OK, the thing that makes players great is consistency. Go out there every night, and do what Timmy's [Duncan] done in his career or Dirk Nowitzki or Kobe. Most players don't even know what that's like to have that kind of standard, that kind of responsibility night after night."

Popovich said he hasn't once given Leonard that speech thus far this season.

"Just look at his progression over the last couple of the years," Popovich said. "He enjoys the responsibility. He welcomes it. He's done well in that environment. So I haven't given him that talk this season because I don't think he needs it. He already understands the position he's in, what'’s expected and his position on the team."

Leonard also realizes that three strong outings to start an 82-game aren't quite a conversation starter toward formulating an argument for capturing the NBA's Most Valuable Player Award. Leonard finished second in MVP voting last season behind Golden State's Stephen Curry.

Yet when Leonard walks up to the foul line in San Antonio, the "MVP" chants reverberate throughout the spacious AT&T Center.

"The only time I hear that is when I come in to the game," Leonard said. "You know, I'll never try to win an award. I'm out there just playing for my team. If I get noticed for my individual performance, that's what happens. Other than that, I'm just trying to win the game."

It's working.