OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kawhi Leonard sipped from a red drink at his locker labeled “Kawhizilla” after San Antonio’s 112-106 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and despite a 32-point effort accompanied by a lockdown job on Kevin Durant, the forward downplayed his coach's praise.
Just minutes earlier, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, “he’s arrived” in discussing Leonard.
For Leonard, however, personal accolades weren’t the destination.
“Opportunities opened up for me tonight. I saw them. I shot the ball, and they went in,” Leonard said, matter-of-factly. “Our offense is for everybody. Tonight, I scored the ball, but that’s my focus. I wanted to win the game, and we lost.”
Leonard’s 32 points against the Thunder represent a career high, marking the first 30-point output of his career in the regular season (Leonard also scored 32 points in Game 3 of the first round of the 2014 Western Conference playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippers). The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard also limited Durant to 22 points on 6-of-19 shooting.
Durant scored just eight points in the first half, as Leonard drew the assignment of guarding him.
“He’s aggressive, an unbelievable defender,” David West said of Leonard.
Manu Ginobili called the first-half lockdown of Durant by Leonard “impressive.”
“He really bothered him with the size chasing him from behind. He did a very good job,” Ginobili said. “Durant is not an easy guy to guard for sure. Doing such a great job [on defense], and meanwhile on the other end scoring 32, remarkable.”
As San Antonio transitions to an attack featuring more of Leonard and new addition LaMarcus Aldridge, the team has struggled with nuances of the game on offense and defense, which ultimately lead to larger issues. While transition defense had been a point of emphasis and area of concern throughout the preseason, the Spurs appeared to have improved that area, surrendering seven points on the fast break while scoring 10 of their own.
Prior to the matchup, Popovich mentioned he was unsure what type of performance his team would deliver. But for there to be so many new faces sprinkled throughout the entire roster, San Antonio appeared to be more in-sync than expected.
After back-to-back buckets and a steal by Leonard, San Antonio held a 97-90 advantage with 6:35 left to play. From there the Thunder reeled off a 9-0 run to secure a 99-97 lead with 4:17 remaining on a Durant 24-footer.
“We made some mistakes discipline wise, and I thought they were sharper in that regard,” Popovich said. “[We made] a couple of defensive mistakes, a couple of offensive plays where we were impatient. [We] just need to work together a little bit longer.”
That seemed to be the consensus in a disappointed, but otherwise optimistic, visitor’s locker room at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“A lot of little mistakes we made down the stretch, a lot of things we see in hindsight that cost us big,” said Aldridge, who finished with 11 points on 4-of-12 shooting in his Spurs debut. “We had the game. We had control. But we just didn’t close it out. I think we’ll definitely get better with time. I think our execution will get better offensively and defensively with time. It’s a process.”
Popovich mentioned the Spurs put forth “good effort for opening night on the road,” and new addition West said the same.
“We had a couple of miscommunications, bad execution,” Ginobili added. “But for the first time in a long time, it’s almost a new team. We’ve got new guys that [have to] get adjusted. We’re on the right track. It’s gonna take a little time. It’s gonna take time for the first unit to get used to LaMarcus, and LaMarcus to the first unit, [and for] Pop to understand how the balance has changed with such a talent in the paint. We’ve got some adjustments to make. But for sure, I’m very optimistic.”