OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Kawhi Leonard is seizing more responsibility from San Antonio’s veteran core, and the Spurs are taking off.
The 23-year-old forward matched a career high with 26 points for the second straight game, and the Spurs rolled past the Oklahoma City Thunder 113-88 on Tuesday night for their eighth straight victory.
Leonard is averaging 19.4 points and shooting 59 percent from the field during the win streak.
“He’s been absolutely amazing,” Spurs center Tim Duncan said. “He’s on a tear right now, and we’re riding him. He’s not doing it the wrong way. He’s taking great shots and continuing to be unselfish, but he’s absolutely being aggressive. That’s what we need from him.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Leonard, last year’s NBA Finals MVP, is becoming more comfortable in a leading role.
“He doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder or trying to make a statement, he’s just playing,” Popovich said. “He’s getting better all the time, and getting more confident. We’re getting him more and more room, and you’re seeing a young player blossom.”
The Spurs have won each game during their streak by double digits, and by an average of 20.9 points. The defending NBA champions have allowed 93 points or fewer in all eight contests.
“The last 10, 15 games, we’ve really turned the corner and we’re playing solid defensively,” Duncan said.
Oklahoma City didn’t resemble the team the Spurs faced in last year’s Western Conference finals. Popovich said he felt for the Thunder, who were without two of their best players in reigning MVP Kevin Durant (right foot surgery) and Serge Ibaka (right knee surgery).
“No matter how you slice it, it’s not a fair fight,” Popovich said. “Nobody’s going to give back the win. We’re going to take the win. I thought we played well, but you feel badly. You see Kevin in that chair out there and the other guys that are hurt and it’s not a fair fight.”
Duncan had 12 points, nine rebounds and four blocks for the Spurs, who still have a shot at the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
San Antonio point guard Tony Parker left the game with tightness in his right Achilles tendon and did not return.
Russell Westbrook scored 17 points for the Thunder, who lost their fourth straight and fell a half-game behind the New Orleans Pelicans for the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference standings.
“We have to stay together, believe in ourselves, regroup and come back focused,” Thunder guard Dion Waiters said. “We have to be locked in. These next four games are very important for us, and everybody has to be on the same page.”
San Antonio led 35-10 early in the second quarter and 63-41 at halftime. Leonard scored 23 points in the first half, then matched his career high on a 3-pointer early in the third quarter. The Spurs led 88-57 heading into the fourth quarter.
“They came out and jumped on us from the get-go,” Westbrook said. “We just weren’t ready for it, but we’ve got another game on Friday, and we’ve got to get ready for that one.”
Spurs: C Tiago Splitter missed his second straight game with tightness in his right calf. … The Spurs held the Thunder to 10 points and 4-for-21 shooting in the first quarter. It was the fewest points the Spurs have surrendered in a quarter this season and a season low for points in a quarter for Oklahoma City.
Thunder: G Andre Roberson returned after missing seven games with a sprained left ankle. … The Thunder didn’t score for nearly three minutes to start the game. … Westbrook had a season-high six steals.
Westbrook, who did not play in the fourth quarter, lost ground in the race for the scoring title. With his 17 points, he now averages 27.5 points. Houston’s James Harden leads the race with 27.7 points per contest.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
Duncan, on defending Westbrook: “He’s coming in like a bat out of hell, and we just have to stay in front of him the best we can. You have to make every shot difficult. As a team we know we have to get back, stay in front of him and keep him away from the rim.”
Spurs: Host Houston on Wednesday.
Thunder: Host Sacramento on Friday.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP.
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