By Mike Monroe
On the bench at the ATT Center for the first time in his young life, Malcolm Thomas watched intently as fellow rookie Kawhi Leonard rendered helpless a serial Spurs tormenter during the critical minutes of an overtime victory against the Rockets.
Rockets guard Kevin Martin has tortured the Spurs a few times in the past, whether in Sacramento or Houston. Most recently, he made 10 of 17 shots and scored 25 points in Houston’s 105-85 win over the Spurs on Dec. 29.
But when Martin re-entered Wednesday’s airtight game with 7:29 left in the fourth quarter, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich countered immediately by getting Leonard back in the game with instructions to prevent Martin from another opportunity to dominate.
More than anyone in the arena, Thomas knew what to expect — a rough time for Martin.
Sure enough, barely able to get open long enough to get the ball, Martin didn’t score in either the fourth period or OT, going 0 for 3.
“I’d seen it all before, in college, too,” said Thomas, Leonard’s teammate for two seasons at San Diego State. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘It’s crunch time, and he’s going to get down and play defense really hard.’ He does it all game long, but when it matters most, he’s really going to make it count. In my opinion, he’s a monster.”
It’s what a lot of Spurs foes called Bruce Bowen when the perennial all-defensive team forward was irritating the league’s most gifted scorers so often that some called him the NBA’s dirtiest player during his eight seasons in silver and black.
Now Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has referenced Bowen while discussing Leonard’s defensive versatility on the occasion of his performance in the first starting assignment of his career. Leonard’s second start is expected tonight against the Portland Trail Blazers at the ATT Center.
“It’s huge for us to have a guy on this team that can do similar things to what Bruce did in the past,” Popovich said after the forward’s defensive opus in crunch time Wednesday.
Popovich isn’t ready to declare Leonard his new Bowen, but it is clear he believes he has the potential to make a similar defensive impact.
“This young man’s got a lot to learn,” Popovich said. “But as I’ve said a lot of times, he’s very willing, he’s very versatile and I think he’s got the ability to be one heck of a player, and he wants to be. We’re very excited about him.”
Popovich didn’t give Leonard a chance to get overly excited about his first starting assignment. Not until he heard his named called out by PA announcer Kevin Brock did Leonard know he would be on the court for the opening tip.
Leonard doesn’t seem to get excited about much, and it’s not clear he understands the significance of Popovich’s implication he can be the defensive stopper Bowen once was.
“It just gives me a little more confidence to just go out there and do my job even better,” Leonard said.
Ask him what he knows about Bowen, and Leonard recalls 3-pointers from the corners, mentioning his defensive play as an afterthought.
When training camp opened, Leonard fell into the trap most often tripped by rookies — belief they must impress the coaching staff by scoring.
“He was trying to justify himself by shooting shots, taking threes, making an impact that way,” said Richard Jefferson, who knows how hard it is to adapt to Popovich’s approach to the game. “He didn’t understand exactly what Pop wanted from him. Now he knows that if he just goes and plays defense consistently, he’s going to get those minutes and those, in turn, are going to lead to some offense.”
Indeed, with his defensive work earning 34, 33 and 38 minutes in his past three games, Leonard has scored 13, 19 and 11 points.