As emotional Spurs fans move on from Kawhi Leonard with boos, DeMar DeRozan gives them a new reason for hope
DeMar DeRozan shows on Thursday night why the Spurs remain in very good hands, and also silences his naysayers
The focus leading up to Kawhi Leonard's acrimonious return to San Antonio was, of course, on the anger.
"It's Up To You Whether To Boo" -- that's what the massive headline read in Thursday's San Antonio Express-News. The headline addressed the ambivalent nature of the emotions that San Antonio Spurs fans were dealing with: They wouldn't have won the 2014 title without Leonard, the Finals MVP that season, and he put in seven years of often incredible basketball during his time as a Spur. And yet the statement Leonard made during last season's soap opera was, in no uncertain terms, that he wanted no more of this place -- despite the franchise wanting to build itself around him, and despite San Antonio being one of the most consistently winning NBA franchises over the past two decades.
The Spurs fans had a choice, and we all pretty much knew that they would choose anger. During TNT's pregame show, Shaquille O'Neal ripped on that predictable reaction as only Shaq could. "You got a bunch of ungrateful people that's gonna boo him," he said. "You talk about what he did, if the organization would have handled the situation a little better, maybe he would have stayed."
But he didn't stay. He demanded a trade, and when Leonard walked out into AT&T Center for warm-ups dressed as a Toronto Raptor for the first time, the crowd booed mercilessly. The Spurs, a classy organization all the way, played a tribute video for Leonard and his fellow ex-Spur Danny Green, but it did not matter. When Leonard was introduced, . Every time he touched the ball, from tip to buzzer, the boos continued. A fan held up a sign: "You're not a leader." These fans used to love him, but love is close to hate, and so now they chose hate. At one point, as Leonard was shooting free throws, the arena broke into a brutal chant: "Traitor! Traitor!"
But as the game progressed, a funny thing happened. This story ended up not being about hate at all. Instead, the story ended up being about this fan base's newest love. Leonard had his impressive moments on Thursday -- an emotional and-one on the game's first possession, a huge dunk in transition in the third quarter, 21 points on 13 shots and his typically stellar defense -- but the game belonged not to him but to the man he was traded for.
"MVP! MVP!" the San Antonio crowd shouted as DeMar DeRozan shot free throws in the first quarter. By halftime, DeRozan had already dropped 19 points on his former team, and his energetic Spurs were manhandling the Raptors by 16, Toronto's largest halftime deficit of the season. By the end of the game, DeRozan had recorded the first triple-double of his career: 21 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists, plus a massive dunk four minutes into the game followed by a devastating crossover on Leonard, who is the best perimeter defender in the NBA. It was a resounding middle finger to those who've long seen DeRozan as an incomplete basketball player.
Yes, you can counter that this 125-107 Spurs win didn't mean that much -- that the Raptors were missing both Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas -- but don't say that to a Spurs fan. Those fans turned a Thursday night in early January into what felt like a playoff game. Those same fans who witnessed the drama of last season and the changes of this offseason and then the struggles of the first two months of this season may have thought the Spurs' two decades of magic were over, and that this team needed to start from square one. I know that's what I was thinking not long ago. But what Thursday night represented -- and what the past month has represented for the surging Spurs -- is a glimmer of hope that this franchise will continue to be in the mix in the Western Conference for the foreseeable future.
On Dec. 6, the Spurs were 11-14, second-to-last place in the Western Conference, with the second-worst defense in the NBA. Things seemed dismal. The trade they were forced into seemed to only be prolonging the eventual agony of a rebuild.
Since then? The Spurs have gone 11-3 and become one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Over the 14-game stretch, the Spurs have the best net rating in the NBA, an absolutely insane 15 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents. They've had the best offense in the NBA over the past month, and the highest effective field goal percentage. Most impressively, their defense has ranked fifth in the NBA during that stretch after being absolutely awful before that. They're now in seventh place in the bunched-up West, one game back from being in fourth place and four games behind the first-place Denver Nuggets.
The NBA season is long. We're not even at the halfway point. There still will be injuries, hot streaks, cold stretches, good luck, bad breaks. A few close wins could bump the Spurs, back in action on Saturday against the Grizzlies (8:30 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), up to a home playoff series; a few close losses could bump the Spurs out of the playoffs altogether. But on Thursday night, San Antonio Spurs fans got a cathartic dose of two very different emotions: The outpouring of anger toward Leonard for him demanding to get out of San Antonio, followed by a very real hope that this trade that nobody in the Spurs organization wanted to make could turn out to be pretty damn good for them in the end.
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