Kawhi shows promise, but predictably rusty in long-awaited return
Kawhi Leonard is back!
After watching his team streak out to a 19-8 record in his absence, the San Antonio Spurs All-Star forward finally made his season debut, recording 13 points on 6-of-12 shooting, with six rebounds, one assist, one steal, and one block in just under 16 minutes. The team ultimately lost 95-89 to the Dallas Mavericks, but simply having Leonard back and doing Leonard things is a win.
Here's a breakdown of the superstar's season opener:
Leonard played the first 4:47 of the game, and didn't hesitate to immediately assert himself on the offensive end, nailing all three of his first-quarter field goals.
To state the obvious, 39-year-old Dirk's best days as an athlete are well behind him, but the Mavericks as a team rank just slightly below the league-average on defense. Coming into Tuesday's game, the Mavs had allowed 106 points per 100 possessions, the 19th-ranked defensive rating in the league - pretty favorable conditions for the "soft launch" of Leonard's 2017-18 campaign.
He showed no timidity in the early going, taking shots off the dribble and in transition with confidence, even though his flawless 3-for-3 start cooled considerably as the game chugged along.
After his hot start, Leonard shot just 3-of-9 for the rest of the game. As the Mavericks broadcast crew noted, the forward was grabbing his shorts midway through the first quarter. At full-strength, Leonard probably isn't getting blocked by G-League call-up Antonius Cleveland - at least not so definitively - as he was here:
That spin move was a telegraphed, slow-motion attempt to create separation compared to what we've seen from Leonard in the past. But it's silly to expect him to step onto the court in mid-season form after a lengthy layoff; given more full-speed, in-game reps, Leonard's conditioning concerns should dissipate.
He appeared to lose steam as the game progressed, missing short off the front of the rim on several 3-pointers from the second quarter onward. Approximately 3:40 into the third quarter, Harrison Barnes blew past Leonard for an easy finger roll.
Kawhi would play another minute before leaving the game, then the court entirely. He didn't emerge from the locker room again, sitting out the entire fourth quarter. But have no fear, coach Gregg Popovich indicated his superstar had simply met his allotted minutes restriction for the game.
As San Antonio Express' Jabari Young noted, Tony Parker didn't immediately play in the fourth quarter once he made his season debut late last month. It could be another handful of games before Leonard makes an appearance in crunch time.
Getting Leonard back to a full workload is imperative, but considering the Spurs' sparkling record in the Claw's absence, and the fact that they were still plus-eight with him on the floor against the Mavericks, there's no reason to think the Spurs will rush to expand the superstar's workload - even if it costs them the occasional winnable game.