By Jeff McDonald
They told Kawhi Leonard, from almost the moment he joined the Spurs last June, to be ready.
He heard it from coaches. Teammates, too.
When Manu Ginobili comes hurtling through the lane, don’t fall asleep. The ball could be coming your way, from the oddest of angles with the oddest of English.
“They told me he throws some unique passes,” Leonard said.
So when the moment of truth came Monday, late in the third quarter of the Spurs’ 95-82 season-opening victory over Memphis, Leonard stayed true to that advice.
He was ready.
Ginobili’s behind-the-back pass hit Leonard in the sweet spot, in the corner, and the rookie small forward buried a 3-pointer to cap a 16-0 Spurs run.
“It’s good that he made that one,” Ginobili said later with a grin. “He made me look good.”
Just like that, old blending into new with one flick of the wrist, the Spurs took the first step toward exorcising the demons of the 2011 playoffs.
Ginobili scored 24 points, Tony Parker had 15 to go with seven assists, and Richard Jefferson added 14 points as the Spurs opened the new season by upending the team that ended the last one.
With 25 turnovers leading to 28 Spurs points, and a quiet 10 points and six rebounds from playoff monster Zach Randolph, this Memphis team looked little like the one that ousted the Spurs in April.
“I would rather start the season against somebody who wasn’t predicted to be a good team,” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said. “They won 61 games last year. People forget that.”
A sellout crowd of 18,581 at the ATT Center welcomed the Spurs back from the five-month NBA lockout.
After one quarter, Parker and Ginobili were scoreless, Tim Duncan was on the bench with three fouls, and the Spurs had belched up eight turnovers.
Duncan played just 5:32 of the first half, and yet the Spurs went into intermission behind only 44-43.
“It was better than being down 20,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
With Tiago Splitter and Matt Bonner filling the breach, the Spurs this time would not be overrun by the Grizzlies’ big men. Memphis forward Rudy Gay helped the Spurs defend Randolph, taking 18 shots en route to 19 points.
The difference was apparent in the first half, when Bonner did something to Randolph nobody thought to do in last year’s playoffs. Battling for a loose ball, Bonner knocked Randolph into the camera well.
Bonner would later chalk Randolph’s pratfall up to a bit of play-acting — “I couldn’t even knock T.J. Ford into the camera well,” Bonner said — but the message was clear.
On this night, the Spurs would not be pushed around.
They held their ground until Duncan — who ended with 10 points — returned to start the second half.
The game turned during a third quarter in which Memphis made just 6 of 21 shots and gave out six turnovers.
“Defense fueled what we did,” said Popovich, now 14-1 in season openers. “We were active, we crowded things, we got our hands on a lot of balls.”
Parker finished with four steals, two of which came when he pickpocketed Mike Conley, his Memphis nemesis, on back-to-back possessions. Ginobili had three steals, one of which he converted into a two-handed dunk in the fourth quarter.
“Our defense got better as the game went on,” Jefferson said.
In the third quarter, Ginobili provided the made-for-TV highlight, whipping one of those unique passes of his to Leonard along the baseline.
Leonard, as promised, was prepared.
“Coaches told me to be ready in my spots, and he’d get me the ball,” said Leonard, who had six points and six rebounds.
One win in December does not wipe out the sting of April. The Spurs still have 60 victories to go to match last year’s total, an impossible feat given the 66-game slate.
But for one night, with old blending into new, anything seemed possible.