Budenholzer, now the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, returned to San Antonio on Monday night to face his old team. It doubled as another opportunity for him to gauge the growth of a familiar figure who has become a feared nemesis.
Sure enough, the Hawks had all kinds of trouble dealing with Leonard, which does not make them unique among N.B.A. teams. He scored 11 points in the first quarter. He scooped a left-handed layup over the outstretched arm of the Hawks’ Kent Bazemore in the second quarter. And he sealed the Spurs’ 107-99 victory with a 3-pointer late in the fourth.
“A few good plays here and there,” said the Spurs’ Pau Gasol, who was trafficking in the fine art of sarcasm. “Kawhi is a very special player.”
In truth, it was a ho-hum effort for Leonard: 31 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. Afterward, he seemed annoyed that he had shot just 10 of 24 from the field. But he had missed the team’s previous game after entering the N.B.A.’s concussion protocol, so perhaps he could cut himself some slack. On Monday, the Spurs were glad to have him back.
“And the rest of us filled in and did the best we could,” the Spurs’ David Lee said.
The win was significant because it pushed the Spurs’ record to 52-14, tying them with the Golden State Warriors for the best record in the N.B.A. entering Tuesday. Under Popovich, the Spurs have been a model of consistent excellence for 20 years. But few around the league anticipated that they would be quite this good this season, not even the players themselves.
“I wouldn’t think it was impossible,” the Spurs’ Danny Green said. “But I didn’t think we’d be here.”