-- After all these years, Tim Duncan's first step remains deceptively quick.
San Antonio's future Hall of Famer was a blur the other night as he grabbed his backpack, stuffed food into a foam container and hurried down a restricted access hallway and out of the arena. That vanishing act was topped only by teammate Tony Parker, who got treatment and showered so fast that he was long gone by the time the media was allowed inside the Spurs' postgame locker room.
Their departures left the relatively shy Kawhi Leonard in an awkward spot.
He had to talk.
And even as Leonard's game has spoken volumes, his actual words barely ever rise above a whisper. So technically, Duncan and Parker probably could get away with justifying that occasionally ducking out after games gives Leonard a chance to find his voice every bit as much as deferring to him during games has helped the Spurs recently regain their rhythm.
"I guess I'm getting comfortable out there," Leonard said of his blossoming, go-to role during -- and now increasingly after -- games as the Spurs' catalyst. "I just got into a rhythm [and] some shots went down. So they started calling my number and I started to carry us a little bit."
It has become a familiar formula this time of year.
The Spurs head into Tuesday's game against the Miami Heat -- a matchup of teams from the past two seasons' Finals -- with Leonard coming off his most dominant performance of the season. He scored 15 straight points to open the fourth quarter and finished with a game-high 25 along with 10 rebounds and a steal in Sunday's blowout victory against Memphis.
Gradually shifting more of the heavy lifting onto the fourth-year forward could mean only one thing: The Spurs are gearing up to defend the title Leonard led them to last season as the NBA Finals MVP.
Leonard's reserved personality might never match the vibrantly versatile level of his game. But his recent scoring surge has been one of the key factors to the Spurs hitting their typical spring stride heading toward the playoffs. Since stumbling through a season-long, four-game losing streak last month, San Antonio (47-26) has won 13 of its past 16 to restore its status as the team to beat in the West.
Sure, the standings and most of the stats reveal Golden State has the NBA's best record, most lethal offense, stingiest defense, the No. 1 seed and potential home-court advantage through at least the conference finals. But the Warriors are still chasing the lofty standards established by the Spurs through five championship runs in the Duncan era, including a current streak of three straight trips to the conference finals.
And the Spurs' recent play suggests they're not quite finished.
Their turnaround coincides with Leonard's career-long streak of 17 consecutive games of double-digit scoring. Only the Warriors have posted a better record in March than the Spurs, who are leading the league in scoring average and offensive field goal percentage in the month. Leonard is shooting 52.9 percent from the field while averaging 19.1 points on 14 shots a game in March, on pace to be the most efficient and prolific full regular-season month of his career.
That confidence and comfort level culminated in an explosive four-minute stretch to open the fourth quarter against Memphis. Leonard started with two free throws, knocked down two turnaround jumpers and nailed three pull-up jumpers. He capped the barrage with a 3-pointer that stretched San Antonio's lead to double figures for the rest of the game.
Scouts, opposing players and coaches throughout the league knew the talent was always there with Leonard. But he's surprising some Spurs teammates with the consistent tenacity and aggressiveness he has shown this season, particularly since returning in January from a hand injury.
"When somebody goes off like that, it makes everything seem easier," Spurs swingman Manu Ginobili said. "What Kawhi did was incredible. It was fun to watch. He's playing with more patience. He knows the shots are going to come, so he doesn't have to force and keep looking for his moment. We're not dumb. We're going to look for him. We need him to score like that. He understands that now."
Leonard also seems to understand that he's performing his way into more media requests and obligations he would just as soon defer to teammates. But, as Parker and Duncan showed Sunday night in San Antonio, they won't hesitate to deflect the spotlight right back.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has seen enough evidence in recent weeks that the team has regained some of the spark it showed last season on its way to obliterating the Heat in five games for the NBA title. He just hadn't seen it often enough yet to feel convinced the Spurs can reach last season's form.
But then came a nostalgic, Finals-like performance in that 19-point road win against East-leading Atlanta two weeks ago. The Spurs shot 56 percent, scored 60 points in the paint and led from start to finish as six players scored in double figures -- and Leonard had 20 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists.
"It's just easier because I've been through the league," Leonard said of being more assertive as his role and responsibilities continue to increase. "This is my fourth year and Coach Pop has confidence in me, so I get to do a little more out on the floor rather than having him limit me on the floor. It's just about working on your game off the floor and knowing where to go, and that's pretty much it."
Another reassuring step came last week, when the Spurs convincingly swept a three-game homestand with a 130-91 win Wednesday against Oklahoma City and a defensively dominant 94-76 victory Friday over Dallas before shutting down the Grizzlies on Sunday.
"That consistency is what we're looking for, and we've not gained that yet," Popovich said recently. "We see that [progress on] nights like this, or in Atlanta, where we played the way we need to play and hoped to play. We are a pretty good basketball team. We just have not been consistent."
Parker, who was in the midst of one of the worst slumps of his career a month ago, addressed the Spurs' need to maintain an elite level of performance as they transition into the playoffs. Despite playing well for most of the past month, games like the 101-94 loss in Dallas on March 24 are the ones that haunt. A night later, San Antonio responded and rang up the season-high 130 points on the Thunder.
"I'm still mad from [last Tuesday] night," Parker said after the win against OKC. "Then, we come in [Wednesday night] and we play great. So this is going to be a challenge this year, to try to find some consistency. If we want to do anything, we're going to have to play good on the road and put games together -- just play [well] for five, 10 games in a row."
With nine games remaining, there's incentive to keep pushing for at least a few more nights before Popovich shifts into playoff preservation mode and holds out key veterans. A win Tuesday over the Heat would put San Antonio in position to clinch a playoff spot as early as Wednesday against Orlando.
The Spurs currently sit sixth in the West, just 1½ games ahead of seventh-place Dallas and three behind second-place Memphis. With Houston third in the standings, the Southwest Division title likely will be up for grabs until the final days of the regular season. Two teams from the division also could host at least a first-round playoff series.
Spurs guard Danny Green said even as the team dealt with injuries to key players and the adversity from last month's brutal rodeo trip, there was confidence everything would come together.
"I don't think we ever lost doubt or faith," Green said. "We knew eventually we'd get healthy. We knew what the goal was. We knew we'd get to that point. Everybody remembers from last year, and we're basically the same team from last year. Everybody knows what to [expect]."
The impact of players-only meetings and individual sessions with coaches can sometimes be overstated. But Green reflected on how Popovich handled the Spurs during their moment of relative crisis last month after they returned from the All-Star break. The team resumed its nine-game rodeo trip with losses on consecutive nights to the Clippers and Warriors. A lethargic loss at Utah three days later was immediately followed by an extended postgame meeting in the visitors' locker room.
Popovich, who surveyed the room as the tension built, was expected to pop off.
"He usually yells and cusses at us a little bit, but he took a different approach," Green said. "He just told us how simple it was to make a few changes that would change the whole game for us. And we're just buying into those things, just over-passing and seeing where it takes us. We didn't start playing great right away. But eventually, guys starting getting into a rhythm and we started getting there."
And now they're here again -- right on schedule.
With a healthy Parker, finally back up to speed.
And a rejuvenated Duncan, addressing just about any needs.
There's a battle-tested supporting cast, intact as the playoffs loom.
And, of course, the reigning Finals MVP is expanding his game into full spring bloom.