Kawhi Leonard hasn't played for the San Antonio Spurs since the ill-fated 2017-18 season, but their fates will always be intertwined, and when they meet on the court it will mean a little more than other games -- no matter how much each side tries to downplay the angle.
It was certainly no coincidence that on the Los Angeles Clippers' first back-to-back of the season, Leonard rested the first half against the Utah Jazz on the road and played on Thursday night when the Spurs came to town. It was also no surprise that Leonard put together his best game yet for the Clippers, using a dominant second half to finish with 38 points, 12 rebounds and four steals to hand the Spurs' their first loss of the season, 103-97.
Leonard made sure to make his presence felt right from the opening tip, and scored the first four points for the Clippers. After that, however, he struggled through the rest of the first half, shooting just 1-of-9 from the field in the second quarter. In fact, everyone on the Clippers was struggling, perhaps due to the effects of the road trip down from the altitude of Salt Lake City.
In the second half, things started to turn around, but the fourth quarter was really where Leonard made his mark. He came out and drilled a jumper to start the final frame, then took the ball from Rudy Gay and coasted in for a dunk. A few possessions later, he knocked down a 3-pointer to put the Clippers up by 12, and then the game was really never in doubt. The Spurs, in their way, kept battling, but Leonard and the Clippers held them calmly at an arm's length. Leonard finished the fourth quarter with 15 of his 38 points.
That is just what Leonard does now. He was always able to make his mark on the defensive end, but at this point in his career he takes over games on the offensive side at will. He's so big and strong, and in command of himself and the game at all times that it really is often a case of just hoping he misses. Because he will get to his spots, and he will rise up over you and his form will be perfect. Send a double team if you want, but even his passing is pretty solid these days.
Watching Leonard is unlike anything in the league right now. Both because no one can replicate his style, which relies heavily on mid-range jumpers and Leonard's unique physical gifts, and even if they could, they wouldn't do so with an expression on their face that makes it look like they're at the grocery store and slightly annoyed about long lines at checkout.
Ironically, the Spurs spent nearly two decades with stoic stars of their own, from Tim Duncan to Leonard himself, so they may be the only team in the league used to this type of experience. Unfortunately for them, they got to experience the wrong side of it on Thursday night.