When San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told TNT's David Aldridge before the fourth quarter of the Spurs' 122-105 Game 1 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder that he wanted more pace offensively, it seemed weird for a couple of reasons.
First, Pop used more than three syllables to answer an in-game question. And second, that seemed like a scary way to approach a Thunder team that had just blitzed San Antonio with an all-out sprint in the third quarter.
But it worked out, thanks in large part to Kawhi Leonard.
You see, Leonard is the perfect symbol of the Spurs' evolution. Because of him, they're not who we thought they were.
And apparently, they're not who the Thunder thought they were, either.
Over the years, the Spurs have gradually increased the tempo of their attack, and Leonard represents the final step in that process. Having now grown into an elite two-way player, you could see his overall excellence during Game 1.
But you could also see the way he allowed the Spurs, stunningly, to beat OKC at its own game.
Maybe you'll take issue with calling Leonard's line of 16 points, six rebounds, two assists and three steals "monstrous." But before making such a judgment, consider the totality of his contributions.
Spurs are +8.1 when Kawhi Leonard has been on the floor during the playoffs, the highest plus/minus number of any player in the postseason.— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) May 20, 2014
Kevin Durant was completely gassed down the stretch and couldn't find a quality look when the Thunder needed one. That was because Leonard had spent the entire game hounding him all over the floor. KD still led all scorers with 28 points, but he made just one field goal in the fourth quarter and didn't even attempt a shot in the lane during that decisive period.
Kawhi Leonard was on the court for 39 of Durant's 41 minutes.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 20, 2014
As much as we talk about the small things Leonard always does (like making a scorer as gifted as Durant actually work for his shots), it was his highlight plays that drew the most notice in Game 1.
He completed an extremely rare Euro-step dunk on the break, a ridiculous exhibition of smarts and aggression mixed with obvious influences from his veteran peers.
There wasn't a camera on Manu Ginobili's face during that play, but he must have been smiling in approval.
Then there was the steal and breakaway layup that showcased Leonard's unequaled combination of anticipation and length.
Finally, he capped things off with an incredible one-on-one attack against Durant, finishing with a whirling move at the rim.
It was an incredible play, both because of its obvious aesthetic merits and because of the way it showed Leonard's advanced understanding of in-game circumstances. He knew KD was exhausted, and he ruthlessly attacked him.
Leonard knew he could strike a deathblow to OKC, and when he did, Twitter approved:
Kawhi hit Apex predator mode about two weeks ago and it's just death since then. Death everywhere.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 20, 2014
Kawhi. Phenomenal. His time to shine now.— Jon Krawczynski (@APkrawczynski) May 20, 2014
Quiet guys who do the dirty work aren't supposed to engender reactions like those.
The Thunder have elite athletes of their own, and we saw them go to work in the third quarter.
Russell Westbrook went bonkers, pushing the ball up the floor relentlessly and bringing his team back to within striking distance all by himself. He finished with 25 points on the night, but had a dozen in the third period.
He attacked nonstop, snatching rebounds and sprinting the other way before San Antonio could recover.
Westbrook saved a ball at one baseline, damn near beat everyone down to the other end. #Freak— Zach Buckley (@Hoops_Guru) May 20, 2014
It was a sight to see, and one that probably worried Spurs fans—that is, until they remembered that this version of the Spurs can actually defeat OKC in the open court.
OKC's defense is so bad that this game is being played at their preferred tempo and it doesn't matter because of how easy SA gets to the rim— Brian Geltzeiler (@hoopscritic) May 20, 2014
That has never been true before, which is a big reason San Antonio has long struggled to compete with the Thunder's pace and athleticism.
Credit Popovich for resting his stars all year, keeping them fresh for this specific series. And give a nod to Tony Parker, who controlled the ball and dictated the terms of engagement for most of Game 1.
Also, acknowledge Ginobili and the way he led the second unit, keeping the tempo brisk and always attacking.
Manu hasn't impressed stat-wise, but he's been San Antonio's rock. Keeps confidently pushing and running the offense as others get tight— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) May 20, 2014
But Leonard is the key.
He's the symbol of the new Spurs, the guy who represents their hidden athleticism and the extra gear you wouldn't expect from a team with such a strong foundation of discipline and execution.
Let's consider for a moment what this could mean going forward.
The Thunder are murderous when they play fast. So you'd think the Spurs would want to slow things down, set the defense and make sure Oklahoma City can't get good looks in scattered situations. But that was the old recipe.
Now, San Antonio is capable of running right past the Thunder.
This might be a good time to mention that the Spurs actually rank ahead of Oklahoma City in pace this postseason, per NBA.com. The Spurs are good when they play fast; it's time for us to get used to that notion.
The story of Game 1 (and the rest of the series) would probably be different if Serge Ibaka were healthy enough to play. We saw San Antonio absolutely dominate the paint without OKC's best shot-blocker to challenge close-range attempts.
San Antonio finished with a whopping 66 points in the paint.
And you'll never believe this, but a few people (justifiably) criticized the way Thunder head coach Scott Brooks handled the front-line rotation without Ibaka available.
The Collison/Adams frontcourt won G6 vs. the Clippers. Hasn't played a minute tonight. Nor has Collison at the 5 spot.— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) May 20, 2014
We can't dwell on that, though. The point here is that the Spurs seemed to surprise the Thunder with a pace and athleticism they weren't prepared to handle. San Antonio, and Leonard in particular, caught OKC unawares.
A New Dimension
It's usually not a good idea to overreact when the home team wins Game 1. Getting carried away can be as easy as it is wrongheaded.
Oklahoma City will come back fresh, hopefully better prepared to handle the Spurs' tempo and perhaps in possession of a few new ideas for countering it. Popovich knows this series is far from over:
"They're going to have to do some different things, probably." Gregg Popovich on OKC's lineups— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 20, 2014
But it's hard to get past the feeling that Leonard is coming into his own before our eyes, and in doing so, giving the Spurs a new, more dangerous dimension.
For a team that was already good enough to win a title, that's a little scary.