By Michael Kinney
OKLAHOMA CITY — It came from the upper rafters, but a faint echo of MVP could be heard as Kawhi Leonard stood at the free throw line. It came in the final seconds of San Antonio’s 100-95 victory over Oklahoma City on Friday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
While the MVP chant at the Chesapeake is normally reserved for All-Star Russell Westbrook, a small number of Spurs fans who traveled to Oklahoma City took it upon themselves to show their appreciation for what Leonard had done.
Leonard scored 20 his his team-high 28 points in the second half to go along with 10 rebounds as he led the Spurs back from a 21-point deficit to beat the Thunder.
“It’s what I have been seeing from him for 74 games,” San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili said. “The kid can play. He is strong and he’s hard-nosed and he’s going to keep going. In the second half, he really stepped up and made some huge plays.”
Pau Gasol added 17 points and LaMarcus Aldridge scored 14 for the Spurs (58-17).
Westbrook posted 32 points, 15 rebounds and 12 assists to get his 39th triple-double of the season. He is only two triple-doubles behind Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, who holds the season record with 41.
However, Westbrook was more concerned with the lesson his team can take from such a tough loss as they head into the postseason
“I think this is huge, especially so they will know what games will be like,” Westbrook said. “Every night is going to be like this and they have to be ready.”
Oklahoma City’s Victor Oladipo scored 12 of his 16 points in the first half. Steven Adams added 13 points and Enes Kanter came off the bench to score 11 points for the Thunder (43-32).
With 4:28 left in the fourth quarter, the Spurs’ Patty Mills drained a 3-pointer to tie the score at 85. But Westbrook scored in the lane to put the Thunder back up by two.
After Aldridge tied the game again with a fade-away jumper, Kanter responded with his own corner jumper.
Westbrook gave the Thunder a three-point advantage with 1:46 left in the game with two free throws. But Gasol knocked in two and the Thunder lead was trimmed to 93-92.
Aldridge put the Spurs ahead by one with 56.1 seconds left after he was sent to the free throw line. Adams and Aldridge then exchanged layups and San Antonio led 96-95 with 18.7 seconds left.
After a timeout, Westbrook drove the ball into the lane and tried a difficult layup. But his shot was blocked. Leonard came up with a three-point play to close out the game.
“They were just playing with a more sense of urgency than we did,” Westbrook said. “Guys have to be ready to step up and they played with a little bit more sense of urgency than we did.”
As cold as the San Antonio stars were to start the night, Westbrook was on the other end of the spectrum. He neared triple-double status with 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists at halftime as Oklahoma City led 54-41.
But it was more than Westbrook hurting San Antonio. Oladipo and Kanter opened up the Thunder offense, and Andre Roberson’s defense forced Leonard to work harder than he may have wanted.
San Antonio could do nothing offensively in the third quarter. They looked nothing like a normal Gregg Popovich squad.
Yet led by their defense, the Spurs were still able to cut a 21-point deficit to five heading into the fourth quarter.
The run began when Roberson picked up his fourth foul and Leonard exploded. He scored 13 point in the quarter to give San Antonio life.
“We needed one like this,” Ginobili said. “We didn’t play good for 30 minutes of the game. But we bounced back, we played aggressive, we stayed together. In this league, you have to play 48 minutes, because if not, things like this happen.”
Michael Kinney is a freelance writer with Eyeamtruth.com