DALLAS - The San Antonio Spurs may have enjoyed an early Christmas gift in the form of Kawhi Leonard starting for the first time this season Tuesday night but did not celebrate Leonard’s season debut after losing to rival Dallas Mavericks, 95-89.
Leonard, who missed the first 27 games this season due to a right quadriceps tendinopathy injury, finished the game as the team’s third-leading scorer with 13 points in 16 minutes.
“It feels good (and) I’m glad I was able to play tonight and get it out the way. I’m just happy to be able to be out there,” Leonard said. “Just to play the game and enjoy the things I’ve missed (such as) missing shots, losing games and making mistakes.”
On time restriction, Leonard left to the locker room late in the third quarter and did not return to the Spurs bench for the rest of the game.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said Leonard can have only so many minutes but thought he played “wonderful” in his return against the Mavericks.
“Obviously he’s confident, he’s a heck of a player and it was real frustrating for him to be able to just start getting loose and have to come off the court, so that’s a tough situation for him,” Popovich said.
“I understand the situation I am in and we’re thinking about down the road,” Leonard said. “I didn’t play 30 plus minutes tonight so I don’t know where my conditioning is by playing 16 minutes, but I felt good tonight by playing those 16 minutes … we’ll see what happens down the road.”
Despite not having played in an NBA game since Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals, Leonard made his first three shots in less than five minutes and scored six of the Spurs’ first eight points.
“Coming from not playing to jumping into an NBA game was definitely a different feeling (from) what I’ve been doing throughout my rehab process,” Leonard said.
The team’s leading-scorer LaMarcus Aldridge recorded his 11th double-double of the season after scoring 23 points on 9-of-23 shooting and finishing with 13 rebounds.
When asked about Leonard’s performance, Aldridge said he looked good but will take time for Kawhi to get back to the MVP-caliber player they knew last season.
“He (Leonard) brings so many things to the game that we don’t have right now. He’s a great defender and he can score a number of ways, make plays and we definitely miss that,” Aldridge said.
The Spurs will have to overcome back-to-back games starting Friday when they first travel to Houston to face the Rockets on Friday at 8:30 p.m., and then their final matchup this season against the Dallas Mavericks at 7:30 p.m. in San Antonio.
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