A handful of the NBA’s marquee players, namely San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard and New York’s Kristaps Porzingis, will be in action when the Spurs and the Knicks square off on Thursday at the AT&T Center in San Antonio.
The Spurs had their entire roster healthy and available to play for the first time all season on Tuesday when they beat Brooklyn 109-97 behind a season-high 21 points from Kawhi Leonard and 20 points from Aldridge.
For Leonard, who missed 30 of San Antonio’s first 35 games with a quad injury, the performance was another step forward toward being at 100 percent. As well as the Spurs (24-11) have been playing without him — they have the third-best record in the Western Conference — opponents are bracing for the second half of the year and the playoffs when San Antonio has all its weapons at its urging.
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“Every game we see a little more of the rust go off, a little of the hesitation goes away,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of Leonard. “We are trying to fit in his game and get him feeling comfortable with the ball. Every game is a little bit better.”
The Spurs have also enjoyed a run of great play from veteran center Pau Gasol, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds on Tuesday in the win while recording his third straight double-double.
Gasol fully understands how important Leonard, who played a season-most 26 minutes on Tuesday, will be to the Spurs’ attempt to unseat Golden State and to catch Houston in the West.
“(Tuesday) was definitely a big step forward in Kawhi’s progression,” Gasol said. “Being able to play 26 minutes as good as he played is a huge deal for us. We want him to continue to be on that line and continue to work as he’s been doing.”
Leonard understands how far he’s come and how far he has to go still. He’s listed as probable for Thursday game.
“The hardest things have been finding my wind, running the play calls, building the chemistry again, the defensive rotations — really everything,” Leonard said. “I have been taking my time, not skipping any steps, so I can be healthy and ready down the road.”
The Knicks head to the Alamo City off of a 92-87 loss at Chicago on Wednesday.
New York has dropped three straight games by single digits, are 17-17 on the season and 2-11 on the road.
Porzingis led New York with 23 points against the Bulls while Courtney Lee added 17, Jarrett Jack scored 11 and Enis Kanter took 11 rebounds for the Knicks.
After a red-hot start, Porzingis has cooled off of late, particularly after returning from a two-game absence.
“Teams are trying to make it difficult on me, trying to force me to take shots I don’t want,” Porzingis said. “As the game slows down more for me, I will be able to see the right pass or the right shot. I am still learning, and I am still developing. I am learning from my mistakes.”
The Knicks likely will play without guard Tim Hardaway Jr., who has a stress injury to his lower left leg and could be sidelined until January. Hardaway is averaging 17.8 points and 4.2 rebounds in his fifth season.
“I think on the road we just need to learn how to win,” Knicks forward Kanter said. “It’s really important. If we want to make the playoffs and go far in the playoffs, we need to learn how to win on the road and just stay together.”
San Antonio and New York split their two games last season. The Spurs own the all-time series between the two teams, 50-39, including a 34-11 edge at home.