SAN ANTONIO — Kawhi Leonard tempered the optimism billowing from the locker room after playing his most significant minutes (26) of the season Tuesday in the San Antonio Spurs' 109-97 win over the Brooklyn Nets.
Stuffing both fists into the pockets of his black joggers, Leonard spoke softly and candidly.
"I wouldn't say I'm 100 percent yet," Leonard said. "Was just able to play tonight and get a win. I was able to make some shots."
But the slam dunk of the night was that the Spurs took the court with their entire roster healthy Tuesday for the first time all season. Leonard missed 27 games, while point guard Tony Parker made his season debut on Nov. 27 after recovering from surgery to repair a torn quadriceps tendon.
Through a combination of rest and injuries, San Antonio has utilized 13 starting lineups to compensate for a total of 99 missed games among 10 players. The group of starters expected to begin the season played just its third contest together, and had previously sputtered to a winless mark (0-2) before dropping the Nets behind Leonard's game-high 21 points.
"Tonight was definitely a big step forward in his progression," center Pau Gasol said of Leonard. "Being able to play 26 minutes as good as he played tonight, I think is a huge deal for us. We just want him to continue to be on that line and continue to work as he has been doing, and hopefully continue to make steps forward."
Leonard was 8-of-17 from the floor with a pair of assists. But perhaps the most significant development to unfold for the forward in this outing came with 4:26 left when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich subbed Leonard in for Bryn Forbes.
In Leonard's previous four games before Tuesday, he hadn't played in the fourth quarter. But that changed with San Antonio's 17-point lead with 7:59 remaining disintegrating to 8 points.
"I don't feel like I'm there yet," Leonard said. "But I tried to do what I can. It's really nothing tonight. Just the whole process of going through playing limited minutes, and just seeing how I feel each game. It just felt good going out. I was trying to stay ready just in case he was going to call me."
"Every game we see a little more rust go off, a little hesitation goes away," Popovich said. "You know, we're trying to fit in his game and the team game and get him feeling comfortable with the ball; just getting knocked and hit a little bit, that sort of thing. So every game is a little bit better."
That's the expectation for the Spurs as a whole in the coming weeks with the roster finally fully healthy and getting reacclimated to playing with one another. Kyle Anderson, who filled in during Leonard's time away, is back after missing eight games due to a left MCL sprain. Joffrey Lauvergne sat out 10 games because of a sprained right ankle, while Green has missed six games with groin and hamstring issues.
Despite San Antonio playing nearly half the season (34 games) without its entire roster healthy, veteran guard Manu Ginobili's experience has been that the team usually starts to take significant shape during its annual "rodeo road trip," which takes place every February when the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo takes over the AT&T Center. That slate of games starts Feb. 10 at Golden State and ends Feb. 25 at Cleveland.
"It's been very unusual for us," Ginobili said of the early part of the season. "But we still have basically a month and a half until the rodeo starts. And it's a good time to get everybody playing, everybody feeling good, get Kawhi and Tony back to their usual selves, back to their rhythm and feeling good. I think we are accomplishing it slowly because they haven't been back for so long. But they are really showing progress."
Popovich joked before the game that "I have no clue" of how to handle a full roster of healthy players, adding "that's what I've got assistant coaches for."
But Popovich considers the process of reimplementing all the healthy pieces simple.
"I don't want to write a book here. That's not a question that you answer in 30 seconds," Popovich said. "But it's basketball. It's not the Middle East peace process. It's not figuring out why our democracy is being eroded. It's pick-and-roll. Big deal.
"If we do things well, we'll be in pretty good shape because as I've said: It's pretty boring. Nobody does anything a whole lot different. It's who executes the best for the most minutes out of 48. That's the deal. Everything else is bulls—."
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