For the first time since spraining his ankle in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals, Kawhi Leonard played in an NBA game Tuesday. While his stats weren’t particularly remarkable (13 points, six rebounds, and one assist in 16 minutes) and the game was forgettable (the Spurs lost to the lowly Mavericks 95–89), Leonard’s presence on the court signaled the true beginning of San Antonio’s season.
For as much as the Warriors cruised through last year’s playoffs, the Spurs—with Leonard—were giving them all they could handle. San Antonio held a 23-point lead on the eventual champs when Leonard left the series for good, not able to recover from his injury in time to prevent a sweep. The bitter taste of that defeat is surely driving the Spurs, who deserve an honest chance against the Warriors at full strength. Leonard’s return this season was never in jeopardy, but now starts the true climb for San Antonio to see how they stack up with the league’s juggernauts, both old and new.
It would be silly to draw conclusions from Leonard’s first game back. He flashed his athleticism on offense, hitting a couple tough shots that would suggest he won’t be feeling any long-term effects from his strained quad. What will be important in the weeks to come is what answers Gregg Popovich will find to questions posed by Leonard’s return.
Will LaMarcus Aldridge still be receiving post touches to keep him engaged when Leonard becomes the primary scoring option? How will Leonard look alongside Rudy Gay for long stretches of time? When Kyle Anderson returns, will Popovich experiment with super-small, forward-heavy lineups?
Everything the Spurs will do from here on out will be a training ground for how they can solve the Warriors problem come playoff time. Surviving without Kawhi was a cute story but will mean nothing if San Antonio can’t make a deep playoff run. And Leonard must be itching to re-establish himself as one of the game’s top players after how unceremoniously his postseason ended. All of that kicks into gear now.
San Antonio sat out this summer’s arms race as their conference foes added All-Star after All-Star. Well, the Spurs were the third-best team in the West for the first quarter of the season, and they just added an MVP-caliber player. Seeing what they do from here should be as fun as watching all the non-Warriors contenders figure out their ceilings. The Spurs, you could say, are back in the race.