HOUSTON — For the San Antonio Spurs, the result was rendered immaterial. Having contested the first 27 games without their best player, the Spurs were so pleased to welcome back forward Kawhi Leonard on Tuesday night that their loss to the Dallas Mavericks was essentially a footnote.
San Antonio (19-9) managed just fine without Leonard, whose quadriceps injury delayed his season debut and remains an impediment at least in terms of a minutes restriction. The Spurs own the third-best record in the Western Conference and their defense did not reflect the absence of a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, with San Antonio ranking third in defensive efficiency.
With the challenge of life without Leonard met, the Spurs must now tackle the task of blending their MVP candidate back into the mix. Leonard logged 16 minutes against the Mavericks, posting 13 points and six rebounds. Step two in his transition comes Friday night at Toyota Center against the Houston Rockets (22-4), who are riding an 11-game winning streak.
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“Absence of certain players, especially when they’re important ones, forces other players to step up, take more responsibility, take up a bigger role, and that’s positive in that regard,” San Antonio center Pau Gasol said. “The team has performed well overall this season and we can be proud of the work we’ve done so far. Now it’s about Kawhi coming back and incorporating him, and having everyone healthy and on the court and ready to play and build the transition of him into the lineup and adjust to that, and be just as good or better.”
The Rockets dodged a significant injury bullet on Thursday, announcing that forward Luc Mbah a Moute could miss as little as two weeks after suffering a dislocated right shoulder against the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday night. Mbah a Moute has been vital to the Houston’s improved defense and his loss, albeit temporary, will force coach Mike D’Antoni to revamp his set rotation, with forwards Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker likely first in line to help absorb most of the 25 minutes Mbah a Moute had averaged prior to his awkward fall.
With an MRI exam revealing no significant damage, Mbah a Moute will be re-evaluated in a week.
“Trevor will play more minutes and that’ll make him happy,” D’Antoni said. “You hate to lose him (Mbah a Moute), but that’s where the depth has to come in. Eric (Gordon) can play there, P.J. can move back to the three. So, I just hate it for him. One, personally, and two, he’s playing great. And for the team, you just don’t want to lose.”
Given the success with guard Chris Paul in the lineup — Houston is 12-0 when Paul plays — the Rockets have reached the point where every result is a referendum on their legitimacy. With the Spurs, who ousted them from the playoffs last season, on deck, Houston could start answering questions for those who remain dubious over its impressive start. Internally, the Rockets merely want to remain committed to the process of steady improvement.
“It’s all about playing the right way, it’s all about building,” Paul said. “You can win however many games you want in a row but it’s nothing if you’re not playing the right way. Right now, we’re playing the right way still trying to get better.”