Five Things to Watch: San Antonio Spurs

Kawhi Leonard

Shoulda, coulda, woulda. We all remember Game 6 of the NBA Finals, correct?

And we all remember Game 7, and the way Tim Duncan looked afterward — like he was at a funeral. The Big Fundamental had been spoiled, winning every previous time he had advanced to the Finals.

So the question to ask going into 2013-14 — will this be Spurs Motivation 2.0?

After coming up just short of the NBA Finals in the 2011-2012 season, the Spurs used their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder – especially losing four consecutive games after winning 20 in a row – as fuel and motivation for the 2012-13 campaign.

For the first time since 2007, the Spurs, long considered old and boring, found themselves in the NBA Finals after losing just two games in the entire 2013 postseason.

Unfortunately for the Spurs, they came up short yet again, coming within seconds of tasting victory at the end of regulation in Game 6 against the Miami Heat.

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Has the Spurs’ championship window been slammed shut? Or are Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and company holding it open for one last run? Here are five things I will have an eye on throughout the season.

1. Can Kawhi Leonard take the next step? The NBA Finals made one thing obvious: Manu Ginobili is on borrowed time and Kawhi Leonard is becoming a bigger part of the franchise. Leonard had Spurs fans comparing him to Bruce Bowen in his first year out of San Diego State, and he shook off some misconceptions about his offensive game in his sophomore season. Everyone in San Antonio – coaching staff and front office included – is expecting Leonard to take another step forward this coming season and become a bigger part of the offense.

The Finals were proof that Leonard is on his way to becoming a top NBA defender, and he showed enough on offense to make everyone around San Antonio wonder if the guy even has a ceiling. Up until now, Leonard has been seen as a complementary piece to the offense. But he will be expected to carry a bigger offensive burden while guarding the opposing team’s best player every night.

The Spurs have been the Duncan and Parker show for the past decade, with some Ginobili mixed in as well. But they clearly need another player that can penetrate, create offense and not just sit around the perimeter and wait on passes to hit spot-up jumpers. Marco Belinelli is a nice addition, but he can’t do all the things Gary Neal can do.

Cut off Parker’s penetration and the Spurs have had a world of trouble finding offensive options and can become sluggish. Leonard will have to be that second perimeter weapon in the starting unit, and he will have to be consistently reliable for the Spurs to have a shot at a championship.

2. Does Tim Duncan have more in the tank? Quite simply, Duncan defied Father Time last season. duncanUsually after 15 seasons, most post players are well into their decline and playing a smaller role. Duncan? He averaged his best numbers since the 2009-10 season. He also turned away more shots than he had in 10 years. Then in the playoffs, he increased almost all his averages across the board.

No one took the Finals loss harder than Duncan, and he will likely be looking at getting to the Spurs’ practice facility earlier before training camp, running the hill and getting himself into prime game shape yet again. Even with all that considered, though, Father Time catches up to even the most evasive of us.

Duncan is very likely one or two years away from retirement. Can he defy odds yet again and have another strong season to get the Spurs their fifth championship? Or will the 82-game regular season grind be too much even for him? The answer will directly affect whether or not the Spurs can make yet another deep playoff run.

Danny Green3. Can Danny Green become more than a streaky shooter? Green became known by the hashtag #icyhot on Twitter last season by Spurs bloggers. He was either scorching hot, or, as the name suggests, icy cold. He seemed to shred that image in the NBA Finals, looking like a clear-on Finals MVP candidate through the first five games. Through games one through five, Green was averaging 18 points, four rebounds and 1.6 blocks while shooting an unreal 80 percent from the arc. He was also called on to help defend LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, which he did admirably.

Games 6 and 7 were a completely different story, however, as Green only managed to sink 2-of-11 3-pointers. Miami made a concerted effort to close out on Green and force him off the 3-point line. That led to several missed layups or Green just deciding to pass the ball, effectively taking away the Spurs’ X-factor up to that point.

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