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Monday NBA Roundup: Kawhi Leonard Shrinking Gap Between Spurs and Warriors

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 22, 2015

San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) drives around Indiana Pacers guard Monta Ellis during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 106-92. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
Darren Abate/Associated Press

Kawhi Leonard didn't win the matchup against Paul George on Monday at the AT&T Center.

He consumed it whole, transmuted it into pure photoelectric energy and released it from his eyes in searing beams that vaporized George, the Indiana Pacers and the lingering notion that the San Antonio Spurs lack anything they need to make a run at a sixth championship this season.

At least it felt that way.

With 24 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals, Leonard continued his brilliant season, helping San Antonio separate itself late in a 106-92 home win. Quietly, because he is nothing if not quiet, the Spurs small forward has posted offensive efficiency rates you'd readily associate with a one-dimensional scoring savant, per Synergy Sports Tech:

Synergy Basketball @SynergySST

Kawhi Leonard ranks in the top 25% of the NBA in efficiency in 9/11 playtypes (cuts, put backs). Top 10% in spot ups, post ups, transition.

Or an MVP:

Synergy Basketball @SynergySST

As of tonight, Kawhi Leonard ranks 2nd in the NBA in half court scoring efficiency among volume scorers behind only Stephen Curry.

There were even moments when Leonard's balance, touch and offensive creativity were legitimately Stephen Curry-like:

The difference is that Leonard gets his silly scoring numbers while playing the league's best perimeter defense. And George found out all about it Monday, shooting 1-of-14 and turning the ball over six times while suffocating beneath Leonard's nearly exclusive blanketing.

Leonard, of course, didn't do much celebrating after burying George (who, by the way, is probably on the MVP short list as well). That's not how he operates.

As proof, consider this revealing anecdote from the San Antonio Express-News' Jabari Young about how Leonard learned of his Player of the Week award from last week:

Jabari Young @JabariJYoung

Asked Kawhi how he found out he won Western Conf. Player of the Week: When he arrived at the arena...little more than an hour ago. #Spurs

Instead of basking in his achievements, instead of even knowing about them, Leonard keeps working and getting better. Tim Duncan has long been the robotic avatar for the Spurs' incessant, mechanical operation. Maybe it's time we acknowledged Leonard as the newer, even more task-obsessed upgrade.

What Leonard did to George has repercussions beyond erasing any doubt about the identity of the league's best two-way wing. It provided even more evidence that a key difference between the Spurs and their chief competition doesn't truly exist.

San Antonio will likely have to defeat the Golden State Warriors in a playoff series to achieve its goals this season, and as we all know, the Dubs (26-1 and idle Monday) have been the talk of the league all year. Deservedly so. Defending champs making clear improvements and running up the best season-opening win streak in NBA history ought to get plenty of praise.

But the Spurs have been nearly as good this year—better by some metrics and markedly superior over the last few weeks. In December alone, their net rating has been roughly twice as high as the Warriors,' per NBA.com. San Antonio is also undefeated at home and has won 25 straight at the AT&T Center. 

Those still believing the Warriors to be the superior team in the face of San Antonio's obvious statistical encroachment have leaned on Curry as a key distinguishing factor in the debate. Curry, the thinking goes, is a transcendent superstar who fundamentally changes the way his team and the opponent play on both ends. He's that rare talent who impacts and controls everything and everyone on the court.

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 18:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors reacts towards the crowd during their game against the Milwaukee Bucks at ORACLE Arena on December 18, 2015 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

That's as true as it's been all season. Curry is a genuinely special player.

It's just that we can't deny another truth any longer: Leonard is, too.

The Kings Keep Kinging

Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

Fresh off a run of four wins in their last five games, the Sacramento Kings produced an on-brand stumble in a messy 113-99 road loss to the Washington Wizards, who were this close to suiting up ballboys in the backcourt.

Nene and Drew Gooden were also out up front, but that just meant Marcin Gortat got more time to abuse DeMarcus Cousins and Kosta Koufos. The Polish Hammer went off for 27 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks.

Ramon Sessions was Washington's only guard option off the bench, and he produced 15 points on 7-of-13 shooting in 31 minutes. It was admirable understudy work in place of the injured Bradley Beal, Gary Neal and Otto Porter, though the Kings didn't exactly make any Wizards sweat.

Just ask John Wall, who got to wherever he wanted all night. Result: 19 assists.

If you hadn't consulted the recent schedule, there's no way you would have suspected the Kings were in the midst of their best stretch of the season. Not with Rajon Rondo terrified to shoot (1-of-7) and Cousins barking at officials as the Wizards ran out in transition. Those are hallmarks of typical Kings behavior, but they'd been suppressed by solid play of late.

SB Nation's Tom Ziller expressed his uncertainty regarding the Kings' positive progress, referring to it as "fool's gold":

The lesson: Sacramento is not to be trusted.

Kevin Garnett Is Still Big in Boston

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Rarely has a 14-point Boston Celtics win left fans at the TD Garden so unfulfilled.

Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Karl-Anthony Towns treated them to 25 points and 16 rebounds, and Andrew Wiggins put up 26. But the numbers were harmless because they came in a 113-99 loss. That's a best-of-both-worlds situation; you get to see opposing stars go off, but it doesn't hurt your team's bottom line.

And the Celtics got great efforts from all over the roster, led by Jae Crowder's 18 points and 10 rebounds.

But Kevin Garnett didn't play. And because this visit to Boston, where he helped the Celtics win a ring, will be his last, everyone in attendance left a little disappointed. The assembled green masses did what they could to persuade Wolves coach Sam Mitchell, chanting KG's name relentlessly throughout the game.

But it wasn't to be. Garnett's scheduled rest and allergy to self-promoting ceremony meant the Celtics chanters never had a chance.

They got a nice postgame shout-out from The Big Ticket, though, per GateHouse Media's Scott Souza; so that's nice:

Scott Souza @Scott_Souza

Kevin Garnett, what did Boston mean to you? "Everything." #CelticsLegends

*Note: It's a good thing Garnett's conspicuous DNP dominated the narrative of this game because otherwise, this entire blurb would have been about Mitchell's maddening style and substitution choices. The dude spent the entire offensive possessions trying to feed an isolated Tayshaun Prince in the post and then went to a destined-for-disaster backcourt pairing of Ricky Rubio and Andre Miller late in the game.

Bullet dodged, Sam.

Tinker at Your Own Risk

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

The Chicago Bulls and Phoenix Suns both sought to stabilize shaky seasons by making lineup changes Monday.

Chicago's Fred Hoiberg went with a first unit of Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic, Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol—a group that had logged two minutes together heading into the game against the Brooklyn Nets.

Jeff Hornacek started Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker, T.J. Warren, Jon Leuer and Tyson Chandler. That group hadn't played a second together before Monday's road tilt against the Utah Jazz.

Neither lineup shuffle worked, as the Suns snoozed through a troubling, low-energy 110-89 loss, while the Bulls gagged away a 105-102 defeat against the lowly Nets. At least Phoenix's failed experiment didn't also come complete with a significant injury, as Joakim Noah, Chicago's first big man off the bench, suffered a painful left shoulder injury, as CSN Chicago's Vincent Goodwill pointed out:

Vincent Goodwill @vgoodwill

The energy guy the Bulls can ill-afford to lose. You can hear Noah yell out, “Ohh f***” while trying to negotiate the injury. 85-78 after 3

The Suns' issues feel deeper, and Hornacek's decision seemed designed to send a message to a team that may be tuning him out, per Zach Lowe of ESPN.com:

No Phoenix starter scored in double figures, and Markieff Morris, out of the rotation for weeks and acting wholly disinterested for months, actually missed a chance to substitute into the game because his saunter to the scorer's table was a little too leisurely.

Hoiberg's move felt more like another step in a straw-grasping search for the right mix of offensive talent. Chicago isn't in perfect harmony either. Butler questioned Hoiberg's tactics, and Rose's ongoing denial-filled disaster of a season shows no signs of letting up, per a quote from Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune

Chris Kuc @ChrisKuc

Derrick Rose: "I don't think there are any issues with the team." #Bulls

But at least the Bulls have managed a respectable record (15-11) and boast enough veteran professionals to make an optimistic outlook feel reasonable.

Perhaps most importantly, both teams remain comfortably in the playoff picture. More tinkering is likely ahead, but it might be best for both Hoiberg and Hornacek to go with units that have actually played together before.

Hey, guys! You can see who your best fivesomes are right here. Don't fight the numbers.

There Are Heroes in Houston

Bob Levey/Associated Press

James Harden ignited for 36 points on 9-of-16 shooting and sort of froze out Dwight Howard again after the big man had posted some nice higher-volume efforts of late. And the Charlotte Hornets couldn't find the basket, shooting 34.9 percent from the field in a 102-95 loss to the Rockets that allowed Houston to creep over the .500 mark for the first time since it was 4-3.

But none of that matters and neither does Terrence Jones' best game of the year or the fact that the Rockets defense seems to have returned after weeks away.

That's because we saw the emergence of true heroes in Houston on Monday, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, who explained the reasoning behind fans booing former Rocket and current Hornet Jeremy Lin:

Jonathan Feigen @Jonathan_Feigen

The boos were very isolated and only for his hair. They don't know what they're talking about.

This thing Lin's doing with his hair...this has to stop.

We owe those brave Houston fans a debt of gratitude for speaking out.

The Great Divide Persists

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 21:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives past Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers during the first half at Staples Center on December 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly
Harry How/Getty Images

It was just last week that the Los Angeles Clippers looked close to cracking the West’s elite upper tier, but the gap separating them from the conference’s top three—Golden State, San Antonio and the Oklahoma City Thunder—only looks wider after L.A.’s 100-99 loss to OKC on Monday.

The Thunder needed plenty of heroic plays down the stretch—a huge Russell Westbrook triple, a perfectly contested Kevin Durant jumper that somehow went down and a game-saving block on Chris Paul’s potential winner—but the Clips have now lost three straight.

More importantly, they’re 0-4 against the aforementioned trio of teams.

There’s plenty of time for the divide to narrow between now and the end of the regular season, but this was another brutally painful loss, and it’s starting to feel like the Clips just aren’t meant to escape the conference’s mid-pack jumble.

Presented Without Comment

Stats courtesy of NBA.com. Current through games played Dec. 21.

Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.

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