SAN ANTONIO – Sometimes young players make a splash in the playoffs.
That was Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — the Splash Brothers — in their postseason baptism, doing jack knives, double flips and triple twists off the high board.
It was the kind of how-did-they-do-that act that left you shaking your head when you weren’t picking your jaw up off the floor as you figured you were maybe getting a glimpse of the way basketball should be played in the 21st century.
Sometimes young players have to wade into the deep end of the pool.
That was Kawhi Leonard, whose next splash will be his first, easing into the water from his ankles up to his knees up to his hips, the old-fashioned way.
A year ago, Leonard wasn’t ready. Not when the Spurs reached the Western Conference finals against the Thunder and suddenly he was swimming with the sharks. There were critical plays that he was physically capable of making, but the rookie who did not have the benefit of a training camp in the abbreviated lockout season, wasn’t sure enough to assert himself on a veteran-laden roster.
Warriors coach Mark Jackson has called Curry and Thompson “the best shooting backcourt in the history of the game” and anyone who saw them practically set fire to the AT&T Center in the first two games of this series had little ammunition to argue otherwise.
However, since Game 1, neither Curry or Thompson has made better than 50 percent of his shots. In the past four games, Curry has shot 7-20, 5-17, 7-15 and 4-14, while Thompson has hit on 13-26, 7-20, 5-13 and 2-8. That’s a combined 50-for-133 (.375), as the Splash Brothers haven’t been able to throw it in the ocean.
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich raised a few eyebrows last summer when he said that Leonard would eventually be “the face of the Spurs.”
That would seem to be a heavy lift on a roster that still includes three likely Hall of Famers in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Yet here are the Spurs holding a 3-2 series lead after a 109-91 thumping of the Warriors on Tuesday night and there was Leonard up to his neck in all of it.
At one end of the floor, Leonard is as efficient and deadly as a shark, connecting on 7 of 8 shots — 3-for-4 on deep balls — to ring up 17 points to go with his seven rebounds. He can hit impossible-looking corner 3s from behind the backboard and finish with a thunderbolt dunk over Harrison Barnes. At the other end, his defense on Thompson (and occasionally Curry) couldn’t be more smothering if he used a wet blanket.
“He made some big shots for us,” Duncan said. “When they made runs, he made some huge 3s for us. Defensively, he was great. His length is just huge for us and being able to contest from the side and from behind those, it makes them uncomfortable.”
Leonard fits in so comfortably on the floor and in the locker room that there are times when it’s easy not to notice him. He usually dresses and bolts after games before the media even arrives at his locker. On the occasions when he is hemmed in by the notebooks and cameras, he squeezes out words as if he is expected to pay for each one.
But there was a reason why Popovich was able and willing to cut veteran Stephen Jackson from the team just a week before the regular season’s end. Yes, Jackson’s play had taken a dive. He was shooting just 28 percent on 3s, which did not gibe with Capt. Jack’s opinion of himself.
The question was whether Popovich and the Spurs would miss Jackson defensively when they ran into a red hot scorer or two, the kind that needs to be jostled, rattled and knocked off his rhythm.
This time last spring, Popovich was hoping that Leonard could one day grow into that dependable game-changer. Now he is there. Leonard might not yet be “the face of the Spurs,” but he’s a got a nose for the ball. On a team where managing the playing time of the thirtysomething crowd is as much a part of the game as dribbling and shooting, it is no coincidence that Leonard topped out in minutes on the Spurs’ box score with 37 in Game 5 and is averaging more (38.2) than anyone on the roster. He is also the legs of the Spurs.
Jackson, of course, concedes nothing has thrown the Splash Brothers off their game.
On Curry: “Didn’t play well.”
On Thompson: “Didn’t play well.”
Since the first two games of the series, the Spurs have been getting up in the face and the space of the Warriors’ shooters. They have been running them off the 3-point line. They have been doing it with double-teams that come at different times and from different angles.
They have been doing it by turning more responsibility over to the taciturn Leonard, who has grown into the role and grown comfortable in the deep water of the playoffs.
Seems there is more than one way to make a splash.