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Leonard’s return sparks Spurs to win

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SAN ANTONIO — The San Antonio Spurs have used 23 different starting lineups during an injury-plagued season. On Friday night, they had, for just the second time, the one that they prefer.

Forward Kawhi Leonard was back after missing 15 games, and 17 of the last 19, with ligament damage in his right hand.

He returned with a flourish, scoring 20 points to help the Spurs defeat the Portland Trail Blazers 110-96.

Leonard, MVP of the 2014 NBA Finals when the Spurs won their fifth title, also contributed five assists, four rebounds and three steals in 31 minutes of competition against the Trail Blazers. He said his hand felt “great” after the game.

“No soreness,” Leonard said. “It took me a while to get my legs under me. Just having the whole core group back, feeding off each other, was great. Everybody came out with energy.”

Starting guards Danny Green and Tony Parker scored 19 and 17, respectively. Green converted 4 of 5 3-point shots. Parker had seven of the Spurs’ 34 assists, making progress after two stints on the bench totaling 13 games with a strained hamstring.

Reserve guard Patty Mills, who missed the first 31 games of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery, scored 18 in 22 minutes. He made three 3-pointers.

“They’re the champs,” Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. “They have guys that play with confidence and guys that make plays.”

Aldridge led the Trail Blazers (30-10) with 24 points. Guard Damian Lillard scored 23, but that was nothing compared with the career-best 43 he had in a triple overtime victory at San Antonio on Dec. 19.

San Antonio (25-16) allows 12 fewer points per 100 possessions when Leonard is on the court. That energy to which Leonard referred helped produce 12 steals, 25 points off turnovers, a 17-6 advantage in fast-break points, a 49-32 rebounding edge and a 20-5 superiority in second-chance points. Leonard is critical to that vitality.

“A team feeds off each other and he has been an obvious important part of how we do things,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “Everything fits better. Everybody communicates better. Everybody understands what to do in various situations much better.”

The Blazers got hammered — they trailed by 23 midway through the fourth quarter — despite shooting 50 percent for the game.

“San Antonio looked like the team that won the championship,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “Obviously getting Leonard back and Patty Mills and Parker, none of those guys played against us last time we played them (the Blazers’ victory in triple overtime), but all three made an impact in the game.”

Leonard’s 31 minutes was evidence supporting Popovich’s pregame assertion that Leonard would not have his playing time restricted, as Parker did when he returned from the hamstring injury.

“It’s not like he’s coming back from an ankle sprain or a hamstring, where I’m gonna over-play him and he’s gonna injure it again,” Popovich said. “If he falls some screwy way on his hand he’ll get injured again.”

Leonard first suffered the injury on Dec. 9 against Utah. He missed two games, returned for two, and was injured again on Dec. 15 at Portland when he was hit by Blazers’ guard Wes Matthews.

Leonard said he joked with Matthews about it before the game on Friday.

“I joked that he tried to put me out for the season,” Leonard said. “We just laughed.”

NOTES: Spurs reserve G Marco Belinelli sat out his fourth straight game with a strained left groin. Belinelli missed eight games early in the season with a right groin strain. Coach Gregg Popovich anticipates that Belinelli will be out another 10 days to two weeks. … Portland backup C Joel Freeland missed his sixth consecutive game with a shoulder injury. Starting C Robin Lopez has been out since Dec. 15 with a broken right hand, missing 15 games. Coach Terry Stotts said he has no timetable for the return of either player. … Coming in to the game on Friday night, only three players had led the Trail Blazers in scoring during a game this season: F LaMarcus Aldridge, G Damian Lillard and G Wes Matthews. The Spurs have been led in scoring at least once by 11 players.

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Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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