Kawhi Leonard's game-winner is a reminder the Spurs are contenders

Kawhi Leonard carried the Spurs to a win on Wednesday. (AP)
Kawhi Leonard carried the Spurs to a win on Wednesday. (AP)

Kevin Durant’s knee injury has created a small but meaningful opportunity for the Western Conference contenders chasing the Golden State Warriors. As our Dan Devine wrote on Wednesday, their four-game lead at the top of the standings is solid but not unbeatable, even at this late juncture. Having Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green can help cover a superstar’s absence, but we don’t yet know how this iteration of the Warriors will fare without a player most analysts list as the second-best in the NBA behind LeBron James. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them fall back a bit.

If they do, then there’s reason to think the second-place San Antonio Spurs will be in position to take advantage. Gregg Popovich’s team is well known for its professionalism and ability to exploit weaknesses, but that image undersells what makes them such a handful. At a very basic level, Kawhi Leonard gives them a two-way superstar who can change games by himself.

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He showed all that ability in Wednesday’s game against the Indiana Pacers, the Spurs’ first contest at home since finishing their famed Rodeo Road Trip on a four-game winning streak. Locked in a fourth quarter back-and-forth that never went outside of four points in either direction, the two teams went into the final minutes with either team looking in fine shape to win. Pacers big man Myles Turner made a jumper to put his side up 99-98 with 1:35 remaining, after which the Spurs committed two straight turnovers to put the Pacers in control. Manu Ginobili fouled Glenn Robinson III late in the shot clock with 13 seconds left to force another foul on Monta Ellis four seconds later, at which point it looked like the Spurs had a problem.

Thankfully for them, Ellis missed both freebies to give the Spurs a chance at a win. They went to Kawhi, who went to work against Paul George on the block. Take a look at the result here:

George got a good look at a 3-pointer at the buzzer when Danny Green slipped in pursuit, but he missed to seal the 100-99 win for the Spurs. However, Pacers head coach Nate McMillan thought the Pacers should have come away with the win:

He has a point — Kawhi’s pivot foot moves around a lot before his shot. On the other hand, that kind of movement occurs very often in the NBA without a whistle. Grasping at a missed call in this scenario seems like an attempt to rationalize a great play by a true superstar.

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Of course, Leonard played that role well before his winning shot. His 31 points led just three Spurs in double figures, but the more notable stat is that he took 13 more shots than the next-closest player in going 11-of-22 from the field. Simply put, Leonard took on the responsibility to carry San Antonio to a win. His additional 10 rebounds and three steals didn’t hurt, either.

Championship contenders obviously need more than one transformative superstar to win titles, but Leonard gives the Spurs a blunt option when things otherwise aren’t going their way. For all the club’s success over the past 20 years, San Antonio has sometimes required an unsustainable level of precision to beat the league’s other elite squads. Kawhi ensures that they can get down in the muck with everyone else when necessary.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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