Wednesday NBA Takeaways: Kawhi Leonard and Spurs' New Stars Shining by Necessity

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Wednesday NBA Takeaways: Kawhi Leonard and Spurs' New Stars Shining by Necessity
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi Leonard's ongoing evolution now includes perfect timing.

His sense of the moment was obvious in the San Antonio Spurs' 98-96 win over the Orlando Magic Wednesday, as he hit the game-winning jumper with just under a second remaining on the clock. But it has also been more broadly evident in the way he's become the franchise-carrying star when the Spurs have needed one most.

Tim Duncan returned and played 18 minutes after missing the previous eight games with a sore knee, but neither Tony Parker nor Manu Ginobili suited up. Parker's sprained ankle made him a late scratch, while Ginobili's testicular injury (yeah...not good) will keep him sidelined for at least another month.

The Spurs are deep, tremendously coached and battle-tested. But that they needed 29 points and a last-second salvation from Leonard to beat the lowly Magic says everything about how vulnerable they are without their old-timey leaders.

That's not to say San Antonio's title chances are in any serious danger—not yet anyway. In beating Orlando, the Spurs reached 45 wins before the All-Star break, their best start in team history. They're also on pace to post one of the highest average margins of victory the league has ever seen.

But they've got company:

The Golden State Warriors won their 48th game a few hours after Leonard downed the Magic, and the Dubs will head into the break with a four-game edge in the loss column on San Antonio. It's entirely possible the Warriors finish this season with fewer than the eight defeats the Spurs have already suffered.

Slippage, then, is not an option for San Antonio—not when the road to one more ring runs through what might be the best team we've ever seen, and not when said team has already secured an eye-opening 30-point win over them.

Leonard, who has scored at least 20 points in six of his last seven games, isn't the only Spurs player peaking at the right time. LaMarcus Aldridge scored 21 points against the Magic and is still riding high after being named Western Conference Player of the Week. He's benefited from Duncan's absence, if only because he's proven role and system have had more to do with the decline in his counting numbers than any dearth of skill.

All the same, that Leonard is now San Antonio's go-to option and arguably its best offensive player is pretty remarkable—and maybe a little unfair as far as the rest of the league is concerned. The NBA's pre-eminent perimeter defender shouldn't also be a game-sealing assassin on the other end.

This has been a long process for Leonard, achieved through gradual skill expansion and forged with rep after rep of work. His game-winner came on a right-to-left crossover honed over years of practice. It's his go-to move these days precisely because he's gone to it thousands of times in workouts.

His personal evolution has sparked others, too. It's hard to imagine the Gregg Popovich of two years ago allowing a one-on-one attack in a critical situation. Yet, here we are, as Kurt Helin of NBCSports.com observed:

After a hopefully healing break, the Spurs must toe the line between high performance and preservation. Holding steady or, ideally, pushing the Warriors for that No. 1 seed in the West, has to be a priority. But they'll also have to be sure Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are ready for a postseason run.

That'll mean liberal rest and limited minutes. And it'll mean leaning on Leonard.

Looks like he'll be ready.

Trending Up While Breaking Down

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It was a slow climb, but the Charlotte Hornets are finally back above .500 after a 117-95 road victory over the Indiana Pacers extended their winning streak to three. Now 27-26 heading into the All-Star break, the Hornets appear ready to stay involved in the East playoff race for the duration.

That's a mildly surprising development, as injuries and some general regression sent Charlotte on an ugly slide earlier this year. After peaking at 14-8, the Hornets went 4-14 before gradually leveling off. But with Kemba Walker continuing to play well (25 points) and the Jeremies (Lin and Lamb) leading a potent bench unit, Steve Clifford's squad is performing on both ends.

And they've been doing it with style, per NBA analyst Nate Duncan:

You can't ever be too certain about the postseason fitness of teams in the unstable Eastern Conference, and it's also true that the Pacers put up a real mail-in effort on Wednesday, as Ben Gibson of 8Points9Seconds.com noted:

But Charlotte looks locked in.

Critically, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist left the game in the third quarter with a dislocated right shoulder—the same one he had surgically repaired before the season began. His return coincided with an uptick in defensive intensity, and he'll be sorely missed for as long as he's out.

Qualified enthusiasm is probably the way to go with these Hornets, especially if MKG misses another significant chunk of time. But that's better than the pervasive disappointment that defined them just a couple of weeks ago.

The Lakers Kickstarted the Cavs

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Tyronn Lue pledged to get the Cleveland Cavaliers running when he took over for David Blatt, and the results haven't met with expectations.

Nobody is better than the Cavs when things get scattered in the open floor. They lead the league with 1.18 points per play in transition, but rank middle of the pack in percentage of offense derived from transition plays. Lue's right to want as much up-and-down action as he can get.

Turns out the Los Angeles Lakers are very accommodating in that regard.

The Cavs beat L.A. by a final of 120-111 Wednesday, and the Lakers' inattentive transition defense opened up endless scoring opportunities, per Mike Trudell of TWC Sportsnet and Greg Swartz of Bleacher Report:

On the night, Cleveland scored just 12 points of the officially designated fast-break variety. But cursory viewing of the contest revealed a bevy of buckets in semi-transition. Kyrie Irving scored a game-high 35 points, many of which came against a disorganized and slow-to-retreat Lakers defense.

To maximize the considerable transition talent on the roster, the Cavs need to play this way against everyone. That'll require better conditioning and, more than that, a willingness throughout the roster (looking at you in particular, LeBron James) to push the pace instead of walking it up for some pedestrian half-court action.

And because this was apparently the night the NBA decided everyone had to aggravate old injuries, we have to mention Kevin Love left and didn't return in the second quarter with his left shoulder smarting. If the Cavs are going to run more, it'll help to have their best outlet passer in one piece.

Chris Mannix Gets It

It's no secret the Boston Celtics are flush with assets. They've got young players on cheap contracts all over the roster, and while that makes them an intriguing trade partner for any team seeking to offload veteran talent, it has also been paying dividends on the floor.

Jared Sullinger, whom CSN Boston's Chris Mannix hit with a Grade-A zing before the game, scored 21 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and handed out seven assists in the Celtics' thrilling 139-134 overtime win against the Los Angeles Clippers. He's a perfect example of what makes this Boston team so paradoxical.

Does Danny Ainge keep this group, which has won 10 of its last 12 and solidified its position as the East's No. 3 team, together? Does he trust the star-less core in place and bank on organic improvement?

Or does he offer up some of the young talent (perhaps with one of Boston's many valuable draft picks) at the deadline in hopes of snaring that elusive star?

Mannix's shot at Sullinger was a joke, but it oddly captured the dynamic of this rapidly developing Boston team. You're only trade bait if somebody wants you, and there are about a dozen desirable candidates on this roster who also happen to be winning a whole bunch of games lately.

Everything Is Super Great In Phoenix

Under normal circumstances, you could blame the nasty dustup between Markieff Morris and Archie Goodwin on the frustration that comes with hosting the Warriors...and hearing your home fans cheer for them as though the game was being played in Oakland.

And who wouldn't bristle at being treated like practice cones as Stephen Curry rang up 26 points, nine assists and nine rebounds in only 30 minutes?

But the Phoenix Suns, who dropped a 112-104 contest that was never really in doubt, have been a picture of dysfunction all season. So this was par for the course.

Trade demands, towel-tossing, fired coaching staffs and now this.

Michael Dunlap of Fansided.com laid out the scene evenhandedly on Twitter, noting that Goodwin got into it with both Morris and P.J. Tucker. The problem with Morris offering any sort of advice to a young player like Goodwin—in any situation—is that Morris conspicuously checked out under Hornacek and suddenly started trying once Earl Watson took over.

Goodwin has plenty to learn, and he started the game out with some brutally ineffective play. But Morris doesn't have the credibility to be the messenger on any topic. He's lost the privilege of being a voice teammates need to respect.

For the Suns, whose only real hope of salvation this year is netting some kind of return for their various disappointments and malcontents on the trade market, episodes like this won't help matters.

The Bulls Have a Decision to Make

Gary Dineen/Getty Images

"Who can?" Derrick Rose told reporters when asked to explain the Chicago Bulls’ struggles. "We come back and have 30 games left. We have to decide whether we want to play or not."

That’s ominous talk, suggesting the desire to play (or not) is negotiable. But with the way the battered Bulls have cratered lately, it’s easy to understand the impulse to give in.

Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic and Joakim Noah were already out, and Taj Gibson strained his foot in Chicago’s 113-90 loss to the Atlanta Hawks. Losers of four straight and six of their last seven, the Bulls have allowed a ridiculous 111.4 points per 100 possessions since Jan. 31, the fourth-worst figure in the league during that span.

It wasn’t so long ago that winning with gritty defense and fighting through injuries were the Bulls’ defining characteristics. Things have changed, though, per Gibson’s comments to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune: “We used to win games with less than this," Gibson said. "I think it's our mental (state). It hurts my heart."

A team that started the season with title expectations is now just a game up on the ninth spot in the East. If the Bulls are going to turn this thing around, they’ll have to do more than decide they want to play.

They’ll have to remember who they used to be.

On Karl-Anthony Towns and Obligatory Praise

We toast Karl-Anthony Towns a lot in these roundups—partly because there’s not much else good to say about the Minnesota Timberwolves, but mostly because he’s obscenely good.

Towns put all that goodness to use in a surprising 117-112 win over the Toronto Raptors Wednesday, scoring 35 points on 12-of-19 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds and three blocks.

Requisite drool-inducing highlight here:

Towns is clearly the league’s top rookie, and it’s getting hard to talk around his potential to be one of the league’s absolute best players in a year or two...you know, when he’s twenty-freaking-one years old.

This is Anthony Davis-level stuff here, without the injuries and with a clear future as a legitimate center—one that dominates in all the conventional big-man ways while also stepping outside to do various guard things.

All with lots of tongue-in-cheek confidence, per Andy Greder of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

This is fun.

Intrigue Abounds in West Playoff Race

Seventeen turnovers kept the Utah Jazz from getting past the New Orleans Hornets, despite 50 combined points from Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, plus a double-double from Rudy Gobert. No matter: The Houston Rockets' 116-103 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers allowed Utah to stay put at No. 8 in the West.

And the bigger news is that the Blazers, by virtue of 2-1 season series leads over the Rockets and Jazz, are now in the seventh slot. If the playoffs began today, James Harden wouldn't be involved.

Long way to go and all that, but Houston missing the postseason is a strange proposition—albeit one that feels rather earned. Harden came into camp out of shape, there's no mature leader on the roster and the Rockets haven't given off much of a playoff vibe all year.

The real stunner is Portland—rebuilding yet somehow staying competitive with inexpensive fill-ins and untested youth around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

Based on its strong finish last year and its defensive potential, Utah feels most like it belongs. With decent health (Alec Burks and Dante Exum aside), the Jazz are now as complete as they're going to be. And on balance, they're just better than Houston and Portland.

If the Memphis Grizzlies, who beat the Brooklyn Nets Wednesday in the first game since Marc Gasol's broken foot start to slip, we could be talking about the Jazz in the No. 6 spot.

And if the Dallas Mavericks...OK, too far. But you get the idea: The West is going to get very interesting after the break.

Strap in.

Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Accurate through games played Feb. 10.

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