By Jeff McDonald
Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard had missed all four of his field-goal attempts Wednesday, struggling through the kind of night all rookies are bound to endure — especially those not known for shooting the ball in the first place.
It was the kind of night that could rob a 20-year-old of his confidence, that could result in two steps back in a development curve that needs to take giant leaps forward.
The ball swung to Leonard on the wing in the waning moments against Houston, and he was tasked with the most important job any rookie could ever face in a preseason game.
The avoidance of overtime.
Leonard’s fifth field-goal try of the game — a 20-footer over Rockets guard Jeremy Lin — found the bottom of the net with 5.3 seconds left, lifting the Spurs to a 97-95 victory at the ATT Center.
“I loved seeing that last shot go down, so that nobody would have overtime,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “It made two teams really happy the game was over.”
On a night the Spurs’ Big Three was reunited for the first time in a regulation game since the first round of April’s playoffs, with at least two of them approaching All-Star levels, the game eventually came down to an untested rookie known more for his defense than offense.
For Leonard, it was just another day on the job.
“I took the shot, and I made it,” he said.
In a game that served as the Spurs’ preseason home opener and exhibition finale, Popovich dispatched his usual starting five in hopes of ? reawakening some chemistry before the regular season tips off on Monday night.
Making their preseason debuts, Tim Duncan scored 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting and Tony Parker added 15 points and five assists. Richard Jefferson hit all three of his 3-pointers en route to nine points, while DeJuan Blair made all three of his field goals and scored eight.
Only Manu Ginobili, who admits he is not quite in basketball shape, struggled, going 1 of 8 from the field.
One sequence, early in the first quarter, offered a glimpse of a team ready for games that count. Ginobili passed to Duncan at the top of the key, who fired a quick no-look pass low to Blair, who immediately shuttled the ball to Jefferson in the corner for an open 3.
“The first five, six minutes were great,” Ginobili said.
Eventually, the game came down — as most preseason games do — to a collection of rookies and role players trying too hard to impress their respective coaches.
The Spurs led by 10 after Danny Green’s four-point play with 3:34 to go, but saw that lead vanish using a lineup devoid of a single established NBA player.
Lin’s acrobatic drive with 28.8 seconds left knotted the game at 95, setting the stage for Leonard to try and break his night-long oh-fer.
Fellow rookie Cory Joseph skipped a pass to Leonard near the left arc. With the shot clock winding down and Lin in his face, Leonard had no choice but to shoot.
By finishing 1 for 5, Leonard kept the Spurs out of OT.
For Leonard, it was just the second successful field goal of the preseason. In the daily evolution of the Spurs’ highest-drafted rookie since Duncan, however, it could mean so much more.
Almost a year ago to the date, as a freshman at Texas, Joseph had a similar moment against North Carolina, hitting a jumper to beat the Tar Heels. He knows better than most the power of a game-winner.
“That can build anybody’s confidence,” Joseph said.
To Ginobili, it recalled a night in Mexico City two Octobers ago, when another rookie named Gary Neal buried a jumper to win a preseason game against the Clippers.
“He waited for his moment,” Ginobili said of Leonard.
“For a rookie, a game-winner is important, even if it’s the preseason.”
Neal earned the trust of his teammates that night. Perhaps Leonard is now free to do the same.