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Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs spoil Sacramento Kings' arena-opening party

By Rick Hurd, The Sports Xchange
San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2). UPI/Aaron M. Sprecher | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/f35ad833e6fc5779167d2bc58e699542/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2). UPI/Aaron M. Sprecher | License Photo

SACRAMENTO -- After five championships and 1,091 regular-season victories, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich doesn't impress too easily. Neither is he big on superlatives.

However, after watching Kawhi Leonard sway a contest in his team's favor for the second consecutive game, the future Hall of Fame coach couldn't help himself.

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"He's ridiculous," Popovich said after Leonard sparked the Spurs to a 102-94 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Thursday, spoiling the regular-season opening of the Kings' new Golden 1 Center. "The stuff he does, it changes games."

Leonard scored 30 points and showed the Kings during one 100-second stretch that the more things may be changing for them, the more San Antonio's success against them would stay the same.

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Leonard stole the ball three times over four Sacramento possessions, turning one of them into his own layup, another into two free throws, and the third into a layup for teammate Dewayne Dedmon. On successive possessions, he swiped the ball straight out of the hands of Sacramento guard Ben McLemore.

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That flurry highlighted a 24-5 run for San Antonio that bridged the third and fourth quarters and led to San Antonio's seventh consecutive victory against Sacramento. It also gave the Spurs their first 2-0 start since 2013.

"He just grabbed it and took it twice in a row," Popovich said. "You don't see too many people doing that."

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Leonard is starring on offense, too. He scored 35 points and made all 15 of his free throws in San Antonio's season-opening, 129-100 rout of the two-time defending Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors. His 65 points in the Spurs' first two games have come on 21-of-42 shooting.

"He took over on defense," Dedmon said. "He's the two-time Defensive Player of the Year. That's what he does."

What the Kings have done mostly over the past decade is lose. But a 113-94 road rout of the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday and the opening of their sparkling 17,500-seat arena seems to have changed the outlook. The Kings led for most of three quarters and responded to San Antonio's game-changing run by using a 12-2 surge to momentarily tie the contest 83-83 in the final quarter.

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In the end, the Kings failed in their bid to open the season with consecutive victories for the first time since 2003. Still, they seemed much improved from the 33-49 squad a season ago that missed the playoffs for the 10th consecutive year.

Center DeMarcus Cousins scored 37 points and pulled 16 rebounds for Sacramento. Forward Rudy Gay added 17 points, and McLemore added 10 off the bench for the Kings.

"It's early in the season, and it was a great team," Gay said. "It was a good test for us. We just need to stick with it."

The opening of the $557 million stadium stirred up emotions for fans who nearly watched the Kings leave for Seattle in 2011, and it brought out several dignitaries.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver was in attendance, as was the man he replaced, former commissioner David Stern. Mayor Kevin Johnson, also instrumental in saving the Kings for Sacramento, also was on hand. So was Chris Weber, a stalwart in the team's glory days of late 1990s and early 2000s.

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The Kings made the home crowd happy early, jetting to a 54-43 second-quarter lead en route to a 57-53 halftime advantage. However, a 3-for-17 shooting effort in the third quarter ultimately doomed them.

NOTES: Kings F DeMarcus Cousins played 37 minutes despite stepping on a sneaker and turning his left ankle in the first half and taking an elbow to the nose and jaw while defending underneath the basket in the second half. ... San Antonio finished as the top NBA team in ESPN's annual "Ultimate Standings" for the third straight year. The standings rate all 122 sports franchises the four major sports. The Spurs were second overall behind the Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL. ... Sacramento's season-opening victory over Phoenix put the Kings above .500 for the first time since they were 11-10 on Dec. 8, 2014. They hadn't won a season opener since 2013. ... Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who is nine regular-season wins shy of 1,100 in his career, will move past Larry Brown (1,098) for seventh on the all-time list when San Antonio wins its ninth game this season. The Spurs must win 66 this season for Popovich to tie Phil Jackson (1,155) for sixth. ... The Kings played the second of 11 games that dot their schedule in the first 17 days, a typical early season for them. They opened with 11 games in 19 days last season and 11 in the 21 days in 2014-15.

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