By Jeff McDonald
HOUSTON — There were no goosebumps Saturday night when Kawhi Leonard pulled on that black No. 2 jersey.
There was no tingle down the spine that often accompanies a dream come true. There were no tears of joy.
To hear the rookie forward tell it, pulling on an NBA uniform for the first time was much like pulling on a tool belt and hard hat.
“I felt like it was finally here,” Leonard said. “It was time to go out and do work.”
As the Spurs and their top draft choice learned in a 101-87 preseason-opening loss to Houston at the Toyota Center, there is still much labor to be done, and — with the shrunken exhibition season now half over — not a lot of time left to do it.
In many ways, Saturday went about as expected for a team playing a game on only seven days of practice, and with a pair of All-Stars (Tim Duncan and Tony Parker) resting comfortably back in San Antonio.
The Spurs missed 32 of their first 40 shots and fell into a 22-point hole in the second half before rallying to make a game of it.
Luis Scola led the Rockets with 20 points, and Jordan Hill posted a 17-point, 13-rebound double-double — not a great sign for a Spurs frontcourt that was physically abused by Memphis’ big men in last season’s playoffs.
“It’s not that easy the first game, especially after only a week,” said guard Manu Ginobili, who recovered for 16 points after a 2-for-10 first half. “We’re all a little rusty, out of shape and trying to connect.”
For Leonard and fellow first-rounder Cory Joseph, simply finding the right place to stand could be considered a minor victory.
With the lockout erasing the standard rookie offseason activities, Leonard has had a week to familiarize himself with the playbook. Compared to Joseph, a Canadian citizen who could not practice until Saturday morning’s shootaround while awaiting a work visa, Leonard is a seasoned vet.
Leonard scored two points, making 1 of 4 shots, and — not insignificantly — grabbed six rebounds in 23 minutes. Joseph scored four points, hit 2 of 7 field goals, and had two assists and no turnovers.
“It’s going to take them a while to get a feel, where to be on the court, when to insert themselves in the game, how to make everything click,” coach Gregg Popovich said.
For the Spurs, the game’s most heartening stretch came midway through the third quarter, when their youth brigade orchestrated a comeback.
In the span of a few minutes, Leonard scooped up a rebound and scrambled for his only basket. James Anderson finished an acrobatic layup for his only field goal (he was 0 for 8 otherwise). Tiago Splitter threw in a hook shot over Hill.
That helped kick-start a run that got the Spurs within 80-78 early in the fourth quarter. Watching the rally from the bench, Ginobili applauded.
“For most of the game, they (the young guys) played better than us,” said Ginobili, who team finished shooting 35.4 percent. “They did a good job hustling, moving the ball, getting layups.”
After a ragged start, Splitter finished with 13 points, including eight in the fourth quarter. Of course, given Splitter’s star-crossed rookie season, the fact he made it to the team plane after the game without pulling something was notable.
“He had such a tough year last year, injured most of the time,” Popovich said. “It was great to see him whole.”
All told, the Spurs left Houston feeling content about the trip and looking forward to a rematch in the preseason finale Wednesday in San Antonio. They know they will be a different team with their All-Star power forward and point guard.
“It wasn’t a great game,” Ginobili said. “But it wasn’t horrible.”
There is work to do, sure. But with eight whole days before Memphis visits the ATT Center to start the regular season, time left to do it.