SAN ANTONIO — The future of the San Antonio Spurs came roaring toward Kendrick Perkins like a runaway tractor trailer with no brakes.
First, Kawhi Leonard swiped the ball out of the hands of Russell Westbrook; then, he hit the gas pedal while accelerating across the 3-point line; finally, he lifted off and planted a tomahawk dunk in the middle of Perkins’ forehead.
It was a play that took five seconds from origin to YouTube clip, giving the Spurs an explosive lift toward their 105-92 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder and, more importantly, a glimpse of what they’ll need if the anticipated Western Conference Finals rematch occurs in a couple of months.
You never read too much into any one game over the course of the long NBA regular season. OKC was playing its fourth game in five nights. The Spurs were rebounding from having their tail stuck in a 30-point blender the last time out against Portland. If there was ever a time for San Antonio to make one last heroic hold on the No. 1 playoff seed without injured point guard and fire-starter Tony Parker, this was it.
Yet, there was a peek at how the Spurs could turn around last season’s playoff flop when they let a 2-0 lead over the Thunder in the playoffs turn into four straight sets of tire tracks down their backs.
Tiago Splitter plundered the Thunder on the inside for 21 points and 10 rebounds. Danny Green went 4-for-4 from behind the 3-point line for 16 points. Leonard finished with 17 while also keeping Kevin Durant as bottled up as seems humanly possible at the other end of the floor.
They’re the three players who shrunk like a cotton shirt thrown into the dryer a year ago in the playoffs.
“They’re maturing right in front of our eyes,” said team captain Tim Duncan.
Maybe no one more than Leonard. Virtually from the time the Spurs made the deal on draft night in 2011 to get Leonard as the No. 15 pick, coach Gregg Popovich has been calling him the “future face of the franchise.”
Pop, of course, is talking about the days when the only place the three-headed monster of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili is hanging around the AT&T Center is up in the rafters with their retired jerseys.
However, it’s the long and strong Leonard who could give the the Spurs the boost they need in another series with the younger and more athletic Thunder if he continues to move forward and asserts himself.
Nobody in this league or on this planet is going to stop Durant from getting his points. The idea is to make him work for every single one.
“It has nothing to do with Kevin Durant,” said Popovich. “It’s got to do with who Kawhi Leonard is. He guards the 3s. He guards the people who are the difficult matchups on the other team. He’s our so called stopper-in-training. So, it doesn’t matter what team we’re playing. That’s the guy he’s going to take.”
At the same time, Leonard is showing growth at the offensive end to be more than the second-year player who just picks up the scraps left by his All-Star teammates. In the four games since Parker has been sidelined, Leonard has bumped his scoring up from 11.2 to 15.3 per game and his shooting has risen from .493 to .519.
“He just plays the game,” Popovich said. “You don’t go to a player and say, ‘You will score X number of points and we’re going to run these plays for you to make up Tony’s points.’ You don’t know how points are going to get made up. People step up. He just matures. You never know — a three-wheeler to a two-wheeler.”
Leonard is no longer just lurking the corners, waiting for the ball to find him for a wide-open jumper. He’s taking it and he’s making things happen without pausing to think about deferring.
“He’s been playing in the middle of the court as much as on the baseline,” Popovich said. “He’s been doing what he feels is available to him, what the defense allows. He’s just becoming more aggressive in a variety of situations. It doesn’t matter where he is on the court, we want him to think about being an aggressive scorer and he’s developed that very quickly for a young guy.”
The Spurs had been hit with a 32-22 blast in the first quarter by OKC when their young guns went to work. None with more of an explosive flash than Leonard, confidently drilling a 16-footer, a 21-footer, a 3 from out of the corner and then making the steal and hammering home the dunk on Perkins. He was 4-for-5 with a couple of rebounds in the 33-9 eruption that smothered OKC.
“You can’t coach it into somebody,” said Popovich. “There are some guys who want to take shots; want to step up when the lights get brighter. Some guys don’t and you find out who they are, but he’s one of those guys. Just like Tony Parker, who was 19 years old when we gave him the ball, and he could handle it. Kawhi is one of those guys.”
Who could hold the Spurs’ long and short term future in his hands.