HOUSTON — Game 2 of Kawhi Leonard’s comeback came to another abbreviated end Friday night, with the forward playing just 17 minutes in the first half of a 124-109 Houston Rockets slaughter of the San Antonio Spurs.
“I’m just happy to play,” Leonard said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get the win tonight.”
With the Spurs playing the second outing of a back-to-back set Saturday in San Antonio, coach Gregg Popovich has already said Leonard will sit for the matchup against the Dallas Mavericks, as will point guard Tony Parker, who since returning to the lineup Nov. 27, hasn’t yet played the second night of a back-to-back.
Leonard played 16 minutes Tuesday in his season debut at Dallas, after sitting out of San Antonio’s first 27 games due to right quadriceps tendinopathy.
Popovich admitted the process of bringing back Leonard and Parker from injuries is wreaking havoc on the team’s rotations, as those two, as well as Danny Green (groin) have been on minutes restrictions. Popovich didn’t say when he’ll lift the restrictions on any of them, and said “it’s going to take some time,” when asked specifically about Leonard.
“It’s a pain in the ass; for everybody,” Popovich said. “The rotations are screwed up, and if a guy’s only going to play for so many minutes, do you go to him the whole time to get him going, to get him back into the flow, and get his rust off? Or do you just do what you usually do? Then you’ve got a couple of other guys in Danny [Green] and Tony [Parker] doing the same thing. So, it makes it a little bit tougher that way.
“But that’s the way it is. Everybody gets injuries, and everybody’s got to deal with them. So, we’re no different than anybody else, I guess.”
When Leonard last faced the Houston Rockets in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals last season, the forward rolled his ankle after stepping on James Harden’s foot, which caused him to miss Game 6 of that series. Leonard aggravated the injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals at Golden State, and was unable to return for the rest of the series as San Antonio suffered a 4-0 sweep to the Golden State Warriors.
After his season debut against the Mavericks, Leonard said, “I don’t know where my conditioning is,” due to playing limited minutes. The same could likely be said about Leonard’s second outing against the Rockets. Leonard admitted to feeling some frustration about his abbreviated time on the court, but expressed optimism about the recovery process.
“Yeah, just because I want to play and do what I can to help the team,” Leonard said. “I know what situation that I’m in. I’ve got to take the right steps to getting back. I played 16 minutes. It’s hard to tell [what type of shape I’m in] until I play a full game and see where I’m at; where my wind is, my legs, my body. I think we’re taking the right steps. I don’t feel tired out there. [We’ll] just see what happens, see how the process goes from here, and see if the minutes gradually go up.”
Leonard nailed his final bucket, a 26-footer, with 2:21 remaining in the first half to extend his double-figures scoring streak to 110 consecutive games, which ranks third in franchise history behind David Robinson and George Gervin. Leonard finished with 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting with 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals and 2 blocks.
Leonard started the game hitting 2-of-2, logged a block on Harden just two minutes into the game, and a steal less than a minute later.
Still, multiple players admitted the team has committed too many errors in communication defensively over the past two games. Houston connected on 18-of-50 from long range, marking the fourth game this season the Rockets have attempted 50 or more 3-pointers. No other team in the NBA has attempted 50 in any game this season, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information.
“We got to have a better start with communication,” said power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who led the Spurs with 16 points. “I feel like we put ourselves in a hole, giving them open shots to start the game. They had a bunch of open 3s. Once they had their confidence, it was hard to stop them after that. We all have to figure it out. We have to get to the shooters, and we’ve got to talk more. It’s not just bigs. It’s the guards too.”
The matchup marked Leonard’s 400th career game, and despite the loss, the forward still ranks as the winningest player through 400 games in NBA history (306 wins). Danny Ainge and A.C. Green each captured 302 wins in their first 400 games.
Without Leonard in the fold, the Spurs defeated the Boston Celtics — who own the league’s best record (24-7) — on Dec. 8, and relished the opportunity to see how they stacked up against another quality opponent such as the Houston Rockets (23-4).
“Well sure,” Popovich said. “We played Boston the other night. You play whoever’s available. The schedule is set, and when guys are ready to play and they’re healthy, you play them. Playing really good teams like this shows all your warts.”