San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard’s ability to step up while the team’s stars sit out will help keep them fresh for the long run. (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

PHILADELPHIA – For so many years, the crucial possessions in the final minutes for the San Antonio Spurs belonged to Tim Duncan in the low block, until they belonged to Tony Parker in pick-and-roll sets, until they belonged to Manu Ginobili for some chaotic improvisation and finally until the trio alternated for the optimum result.

But on this night, the Spurs inexplicably let a 24-point lead over the winless Philadelphia 76ers get down to five with 92 seconds remaining and Duncan was watching in a beige sport coat after taking the night off, Parker was nursing a rib contusion and Ginobili was given the fourth quarter to relax. So that meant it was up to the future of the franchise, Kawhi Leonard, to bail out the Spurs and save them from an ignominious defeat.

Leonard called for the ball on the left block, pump faked, blew past the overmatched Hollis Thompson and drew a foul while using his massive right mitt to drip the ball in the hoop and lock up a 109-103 victory, the Spurs’ eighth straight to improve to 13-4.

“It’s just something instinctive. I’ve been doing it since I been here,” Leonard said of his ability to post up and score. “I just really been waiting for an opportunity.”

Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich had no choice but to give Leonard the chance to come through for the team with his more seasoned options sidelined. But he wants Leonard to start making performances like Monday night – when he matched his regular season career-high with 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds – more of a regular occurrence with Duncan, Parker and Ginobili around and against more formidable competition.

“We’re trying to loosen up a bit and give him more of a green light,” Popovich said. “He’s getting more license. When you’re a young kid, you’re going to defer to Timmy and Manu and [Tony]. Now it’s like, ‘To heck with those guys. The Big Three, they’re older than dirt. To hell with them. You’re the Big One. You’ve got to go do your deal.’ So, we’re trying to get him to be more demonstrative in that regard.”

Popovich didn’t need to see Leonard become the youngest NBA Finals MVP since Magic Johnson in 1982 last June to be sold on the 23-year-old San Diego State product. But Leonard’s breakout showing during the Spurs’ five-game annihilation of the Heat merely validated Popovich’s belief in the unassuming rising star. The two had an emotional exchange late in Game 3 of the NBA Finals when Leonard scored 29 points and Popovich gave him four tough-love jabs across the chest.

“I said, ‘This is you. This, Kawhi Leonard. You have arrived. This is what I’m talking about. Now you do it over, and over and over again. That’s what the big boys do,” Popovich said of Leonard, who posted 23.7 points on 68.6 percent shooting with 9.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in the final three games.

And with that success, Leonard is now being asked to assume more responsibility. “He’s committed to being a great player and a great teammate,” Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford said. “He’s come back, expecting more of himself as a leader of the group.”

The Spurs and Leonard didn’t reach an agreement on a contract extension before the Oct. 31 deadline but it was actually in San Antonio’s best interest to wait until next summer to strike a deal. With Leonard hitting restricted free agency, he occupies a cap hold of $7.2 million instead of a guaranteed salary slot of $15.5 million had they come to terms on an extension – a huge difference that could allow the team to acquire more talent should Duncan and/or Ginobili walk away next summer. But Leonard would rather focus on this season than his contract situation. “I feel like they like me here and I’m going to come back, but we’ll see,” Leonard said. “We’re going to see this summer.”

Leonard has already recorded four 20-point games this season – and three in the past five games – after doing it three times last season and ranks second in scoring behind Parker at 15.1 points per game. While that scoring average, which is easily a career-high for Leonard, might seem modest for a player expected to lead the organization once Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are gone, Ginobili disputes that his production cannot be discounted.

“Maybe on a different team, he would be putting up much higher numbers and doing more things. The thing is, we play in a system and we take what the game or the system give us,” Ginobili said. “So it’s not like we’re the type of team that will go to Kawhi 10 times in a row because he’s playing well. We try to play, get everybody involved. We all want to play good and maybe that hurts him numbers-wise but I think at this point in his career, after winning a championship and the MVP, he doesn’t need that. He needs to keep winning and keep improving and getting to understand the team and getting better and he’s been fantastic.”


Leonard helped the Spurs past the Sixers Monday night. (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

Popovich credits Buford for convincing him to surrender George Hill, his favorite player at the time, to Indiana for the 15th pick that yielded Leonard in the 2011 NBA draft. He admitted that he was “scared to death” about making the deal but the Spurs needed a big perimeter defender to slow down Kevin Durant and LeBron James if it had any hopes of possibly winning again.

Buford said recently he liked Leonard in college because he had “a respect level from his teammates that’s not easily earned … We felt like his mentality would fit our defensive scheme and that would give Pop the confidence to leave him on the floor and let him grow.”

The Spurs have developed a player who is not just a more athletic Bruce Bowen but a player capable of dominating on both sides of the court. Leonard used to generate much of his scoring by camping out and waiting on the open looks that came from teammates’ double teams or whip-cracking passes. But last summer, the Spurs coaches gave Leonard film of Michael Jordan to study his low post footwork.

With a jump shot that was modified by assistant Chip Engelland shortly after his arrival, those low post skills, sharpened by assistant Chad Forcier, have helped make Leonard a more reliable weapon.

“We didn’t run anything for him in the past. He just got it out of the natural flow of the offense and did whatever he did. Which was fine with me. Why screw him up?” Popovich said. “But we’ll probably call his number now. He’s the Finals MVP, right, so I got to.”

In the victory over the 76ers, Leonard showed his improving arsenal when he hit a turnaround jumper over K.J. McDaniels, spun inside to overpower Michael Carter-Williams, connected on two three-pointers and threw down an impressive, one-handed fastbreak dunk with McDaniels contesting.

“I try to assert myself every night. It’s just tonight, it’s a lot of shots to shoot. Tony and Tim didn’t play,” Leonard said, while adding that assuming that role is more challenging when the Spurs’ other focal points are around. “It’s very tough. They’re trying to score the ball as much as I am, and they’ve already been here for 10 years and Coach Pop has the confidence in them, and they’ve been here, they know more than me, so just got to ride with them and wait until they’re on their way out.”

Ginobili said Leonard has already earned the right to demand more touches within the offense and that he and Parker went through a similar transition. “TD was a different story,” Ginobili said with a laugh. “It’s just a matter of time [for Leonard] and we’re not talking about a decade. We’re talking a year or two.”