Column by Buck Harvey
LOS ANGELES — They didn’t like Kawhi Leonard Saturday. They were in awe of him.
A few members of the Spurs’ brass stood in a Staples Center hallway trying to find the proper superlative. And, fitting of Leonard, the best compliment was a non-verbal one.
A Spurs official put his hand in front of his face, then lowered it slowly, to show the universal sign for expressionless cool.
That was Leonard, the rookie, on the road, with the Spurs being crushed in the first half.
“He might have been,” the official said, “the steadiest on the floor.”
He might have been the best Spur, too, and that brings up something that should have been understood long ago by people who insist on comparing him to Bruce Bowen. Leonard isn’t Bowen.
Leonard has twice the talent. He can rebound, muscle, dribble and pass. Bowen struggled with all four.
And while Bowen needed time to find a place in the league at age 30, Leonard is there at 20.
Add to that what Bowen did so well, such as shoot the corner three and play defense, and the package is rare. It was all on display Saturday, when Leonard alternated between chasing Chris Paul and bumping with Blake Griffin.
“He’s the one guy nobody ever talks about,” Manu Ginobili said afterward. And maybe he’s also the reason many don’t understand where this 17-in-a-row success has come from. The Spurs have found a young, long, efficient athlete who fills a position that has been lacking since, well, Bowen left.
His composure might be his most impressive trait. Leonard grew up in the area, so he had family and friends here, and yet he reacted to the early rout by not reacting.
“I don’t think he ever gets excited,” Tim Duncan said Saturday. “He’s absolutely even keel the entire time. I think he’s even more mellow than me, if that’s possible.”
Duncan consciously works to keep a poker face. Leonard is a natural.
And it’s not that Leonard has an absence of expression; it’s what is there in place of one. Leonard has permanent sorrow, the look of a sad clown, and it rarely changes.
He was the same after the game Saturday, when the media surrounded him and asked how he thought he did against Griffin.
“I think I did pretty well,” he said, while his faced suggested he had failed miserably.
He never talks to refs, which is smart for a rookie, and he doesn’t say much to his teammates, either. But, according to Stephen Jackson, Leonard has a favorite expression.
The Spurs needed exactly that Saturday. Leonard sat down late in the first quarter after the Clippers jumped out to a 23-9 lead. By the time he came back, the Spurs were losing by 21.
Gregg Popovich later repeated what he often says, that these early leads always scare coaches, because the games are “so doggone long.” But how doggone long would Popovich have stuck with his starters had the Clippers kept their lead?
With another game tonight, Popovich might have been one quarter away from conceding.
So what happened at the end of the first half mattered, and Leonard started it. He hit a runner. Then, after Tony Parker missed, Leonard kept the rebound alive. The basketball fell into Duncan’s arms, and he got the score.
Grind hard, all right.
By the end of the half, the sense was that the Spurs were in control. ?Leonard took that further to start the third quarter, with a three and later a steal that set up a Parker layup.
How the Spurs pulled even: A three-point play inside by Leonard.
“Kawhi sure does not look like a rookie,” Popovich said at a news conference.
And outside the room, standing in the hallway, a Spurs official put his hand in front of his face, then lowered it slowly.
SPURS VS. CLIPPERS
(Spurs lead best-of-seven series 2-0)
Game 4: Sunday, @Clippers, 9:30 p.m., TNT
* Game 5: Tuesday, @Spurs, TBA, TNT
* Game 6: Friday, @Clippers, TBA, ESPN
* Game 7: May 27, @Spurs, TBA, TNT
* If necessary