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Kawhi Leonard becoming the LeBron stopper the Spurs knew they’d need

Jun 12, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT

Miami Heat v San Antonio Spurs - Game Three Getty Images

In 2011, a 22-year-old Derrick Rose became the youngest Most Valuable Player in NBA history. Dwight Howard, then just 25, finished second in the voting. Dirk Nowitzki led the Mavericks to the championship.

The NBA can be a reactionary league, and some teams set out that offseason searching for the next Rose, Howard or Nowitzki or a player who could stop one of those three. A point guard, center and power forward.

The Spurs didn’t become the NBA’s top team in the last 15 years by being reactionary, though, and they eyed a different type of player, one who could help them in 2012, 2013 and beyond – not 2011, a season that had already ended. That meant they needed someone to guard LeBron James and Kevin Durant, small forwards.

So, the Spurs shopped George Hill, a player they had developed into a borderline starter/Sixth Man of the Year candidate. To a degree, San Antonio got lucky Kawhi Leonardranked No. 6 on ESPN’s big board – fell all the way to the No. 15 pick in the 2011 draft, where the Pacers picked and were willing to trade for Hill.

The Spurs’ calculation was dead on. LeBron and Durant finished 1-2 in MVP voting and led their team to a combined three Finals in the two years since San Antonio drafted Leonard. Meanwhile, Leonard has developed into one of the NBA’s best defenders of those two.

That ability was on full display during the Spurs’ 113-77 Game 3 win over the Heat last night. In addition to posting 14 points and 12 rebounds, Leonard became the youngest player since at least 1985 to get four steals in a Finals game and helped hold LeBron to 7-of-21 shooting and, for the first time since 2009, no free throws .

LeBron has never averaged fewer points per game in a series than the 16.7 he’s scoring in these Finals, and his series field-goal percentage (38.9) is his lowest in the last five years. Of course, Leonard doesn’t deserve all the credit, but he’s the primary piece of San Antonio’s defense of LeBron.

Leonard showed this type of defensive potential against Durant in the Western Conference Finals last year, but ultimately, Leonard was still a rookie and wasn’t ready for the matchup. That was a key reason the Thunder beat the Spurs to reach the Finals.

But Leonard, even though he’s four years younger than any other starter in this series, sure looks ready now. Especially impressively, Leonard has grabbed two, eight and three offensive rebounds in the Finals. He’s not just guarding LeBron, he has enough energy to make all the hustle plays on offense, too.

Leonard is at the perfect crossroads, young enough to play hard for major minutes and savvy enough to play well on the biggest stage – just as the Spurs envisioned two years ago.

  1. explosionsauce - Jun 12, 2013 at 8:06 AM

    Lebron has been looking very pedestrian this entire series. Major blow to his legacy regardless.

    • ryanrockzzz - Jun 12, 2013 at 8:41 AM

      Lebron is one of the best ever. You can argue that all you want, but this series is still only 2-1, and he won a title last year. Not to metion the Heat only got our of the last round because of how well he played.

      I’m saying this and i’m not even a huge Lebron fan. People will always look for any way to not give this guy credit for a being a great player.

      • urodaddy07 - Jun 12, 2013 at 9:06 AM

        Totally agree. It’s been 3 games, come on. The guy has been the best player in the league fr the last 4 years or so. I don’t see how this is a major mark against his legacy. If Heats end up losing this series, obviously it doesn’t help his legacy, but I don’t see how it diminishes his accomplishments ths far.

      • sire2334 - Jun 12, 2013 at 9:09 AM

        I’m not a huge Lebron fan either…but I’m a fan of the game. I like seeing greatness. I was ready for the guy to take up the baton from Jordan and take the league to new heights. He hasn’t done that yet fans of Lebron act like he has. So it’s only natural that when he slums, people are going to call him out for it.

      • bizmarks12 - Jun 12, 2013 at 12:39 PM

        You disgust me, lol!

      • lovetbrady - Jun 12, 2013 at 1:02 PM

        Doesn’t the”Greatest player on the planet have to live up to his hype?Jordan NEVER got beat down like this.Hey,James is the one calling himself The King.If he wants to talk the talk, he better be able to walk the walk.

      • Clayton Bigsby - Jun 12, 2013 at 2:23 PM

        Great player??…lmao…

        LeFlop is who we thought he was..

        -D Rodman

  2. cantonbound13 - Jun 12, 2013 at 8:06 AM

    They’re forcing him to shoot the jumper he doesn’t have, genius. You would think the person some actually think is the greatest ever could make a jump shot.

    • aboogy123456 - Jun 12, 2013 at 8:08 AM

      The difference between lebron and other great all time scorers like kobe and jordan, is that when someone matches lebron physically, he is not creative or versatile enough to find other ways to score

    • aboogy123456 - Jun 12, 2013 at 8:09 AM

      I think the main difference between lebron and other all time great scorers, is that when someone matches lebron physically, he is not creative or versatile enough to find other ways to score.

      • urodaddy07 - Jun 12, 2013 at 9:15 AM

        I agree that he is not that creative off the dribble. I don’t get Kenny Smith saying that he has better “handles” than Magic Johnson. That’s crazy. Lebron’s strengths are his power and quickness. He is certainly not as good handling the ball as Magic.

    • urodaddy07 - Jun 12, 2013 at 9:11 AM

      Oh come on. He’s shot better than 50% for the season. Now, he hadn’t traditionally shot that well from outside, but he you cannot argue that he doesn’t have a jumper when he’s done it all year. Plus he doesn’t take a to of bad shots.

      • gmsingh123 - Jun 12, 2013 at 9:45 AM

        Being a great regular season player won’t win LeBron any championships.

      • rtfinch - Jun 12, 2013 at 11:14 AM

        when he gets a switch and has splitter isolated and pulls up for 3, yes that’s a TERRIBLE shot.

    • pistolpete0903 - Jun 12, 2013 at 10:21 AM

      Exactly, it wasn’t a secret what LeBron’s chink was.
      Pacers exploited it,and so are the Spurs

      • lmoneyfresh - Jun 12, 2013 at 11:23 AM

        Is that a shot at Jeremy Lin?

    • patygoat24 - Jun 12, 2013 at 11:31 AM

      Kobe could make those shots. He banks them 95% of the time.

  3. aboogy123456 - Jun 12, 2013 at 8:07 AM

    The thing that makes lebron so amazing is that he’s bigger and faster than everybody in the league. Leonard is good because he’s the closest to matching that strength and speed combo. The difference between lebron and other great scorers like kobe and jordan, is that when someone matches lebron physically, he is not creative or versatile enough to find other ways to score.

  4. shockexchange - Jun 12, 2013 at 8:18 AM

    Saying Kawhi Leonard stopped LeBron is a complete joke. The Spurs stopped the Kang. They are double, sometimes triple-teaming him. They are employing the Shock Exchange’s “LeBron Rules … Keys to Stopping LeBron James” to the letter.

    • sire2334 - Jun 12, 2013 at 9:12 AM

      If they are consistently “triple teaming” Lebron then he has terrible vision if he can’t find at least 1 of 2 open men for an easy bucket. The bottom line is that he’s just being being aggressive enough. If he was, It won’t matter who’s guarding him. He’s either getting a bucket or he’s at the line.

      • urodaddy07 - Jun 12, 2013 at 9:24 AM

        I disagree that it doesn’t matter who’s guarding him. Of course they double team, most teams do. this cant be new to him. He typically passes well out of the double, but I think what Kahwi and the Spurs do well is to cut off the passing angles.

      • borderline1988 - Jun 12, 2013 at 11:24 AM

        The Spurs are double and triple teaming Lebron as soon as he puts the ball on the floor or gets it in the post. Otherwise, they are laying off him and daring him to shoot.

        Honestly, the defense on Lebron isn’t that good…it’s just Lebron isn’t hitting any jumpers or 3s right now. They’re playing him like teams play Rondo.

        Even you or I could probably guard Lebron if I’m standing 5 feet behind him and have 2 guys to help me as soon as he puts the ball on the floor. If he can’t raise up and hit an open jumper, he’s not going anywhere.

        Lebron needs to get in the damn gym and take 1000 jump shots today. If he gets that jumper in rythym, watch out. The Spurs will have to step up on him at the 3pt line, and with that space he will blow by the first defender and either go to the basket or find the shooters.

        Wade is the same way, although he can be single-guarded even when he puts the ball on the floor.

    • zerole00 - Jun 12, 2013 at 9:53 AM

      You’re still referring to yourself in the third person? On the internet? Seriously man?

      • shockexchange - Jun 12, 2013 at 11:34 AM

        Do you have any comments on the article or just on the Shock Exchange?

    • bougin89 - Jun 12, 2013 at 2:21 PM

      Going underneath all ball screens and giving Lebron everything 18 feet and out is NOT triple teaming him…smh. They are making him beat them with his jumper which has been working to the Spurs advantage all series.

      • shockexchange - Jun 12, 2013 at 2:25 PM

        bougin89,

        They are forcing The Kang into mid-range jumpers. However, when he drives, all 5 spurs, Popovich and the popcorn guy converge on him.

      • bougin89 - Jun 12, 2013 at 2:28 PM

        That’s called help defense…No doubt they gameplan to try and force Lebron to stay out of the paint, but they are not trapping him when he gets the ball or double teaming him when he gets a ball screen.

    • gmsingh123 - Jun 12, 2013 at 4:35 PM

      It doesn’t matter if the Spurs are quintuple teaming LeBron. If he’s the only guy who can score consistently and you shut him down you have a 36 pt. rout like we just saw.

      • shockexchange - Jun 12, 2013 at 10:57 PM

        It kind of does matter because the article is titled “Kawhi Leonard becoming the LeBron Stopper …”

      • gmsingh123 - Jun 13, 2013 at 9:43 AM

        I was responding to this comment: “The Spurs are double and triple teaming Lebron”. It’s back there a ways so I can see why it would be confusing.

  5. kingsforever - Jun 12, 2013 at 8:32 AM

    Lebron is overrated

  6. jadaruler - Jun 12, 2013 at 8:43 AM

    What else happened in 2011 is people saw Shawn Marion play Kobe, Durant, and Lebron well during the Mavs title run. You can’t “stop” either of those guys, but can have lengthy 3/4 guy that can play them well enough (along with some help of course).

    I still Marion’s defense in that title gets slept on in the national media’s Tyson Chandler love affair.

  7. johnelwayismydad - Jun 12, 2013 at 8:50 AM

    Leonard is not completely shutting down James, but he is making him look like an average player, which is a huge accomplishment.

  8. papacrick - Jun 12, 2013 at 8:59 AM

    No shock here have you seen that kid’s wing span?

    • erckle31 - Jun 12, 2013 at 9:59 AM

      No kidding, his hands are like pizzas too.

  9. klownboy - Jun 12, 2013 at 9:31 AM

    Something tells me LeBron is going to come out mad in Game 4…

    • cantonbound13 - Jun 12, 2013 at 9:35 AM

      It’s called Roid rage. Doesn’t matter, he’s not playing an ancient Celtics team this time.

  10. metalhead65 - Jun 12, 2013 at 10:20 AM

    look nobody is saying lebron is not a great player but he brought on all negative talk,hate whatever it is you want to call it himself with the way he has acted since he bought into the chosen one hype. he cemented the hate he gets with his whole decision thing and the party they had announcing it. the not 1 but 7 or 8 nonsense was enough to turn people against him. if he had just said I am going to play for the heat and left at that nobody but the people of cleveland would have cared. nobody likes a arrogant jerk and that is what he came off as. so please stop trying to make excuses for him and telling us how great he is. we know and we don’t care,we want him to lose so we do not have to listen to him or those arrogant fans in miami. at least laker fans have history on their side and have a right to act like they do.

  11. staff2cj - Jun 12, 2013 at 10:39 AM

    Only the Kang can stop the Kang!!

    • kavika6 - Jun 13, 2013 at 2:51 PM

      The Spurs are doing a pretty good job.

  12. chargerdillon - Jun 12, 2013 at 10:56 AM

    As a huge Lebron fanboy I have to tell you some of his criticism is well earned. There are just nights he doesn’t show up to be the dominant force that other nights nobody can stop.

    It’s not to say that some of the other greatest players of all time didn’t take nights off, but a large majority of them didn’t do it in the finals.

    Lebron has essentially turned off his motor in the final game against the Spurs when he was on the Cav’s in the finals, he turned off the switch against the Mavericks in the Finals, and now after looking virtually unstoppable in game 1 with a triple double, he came out in game 3 and looked like a man with no confidence in himself once again.

    Physically tough he is, mentally tough he still has some growing to do. I really don’t know what excuse can be made for him. There’s not a single person who wouldn’t say that they’d be surprised if he suddenly flipped the switch and blew out the Spurs the rest of the games, because he has that physical ability. But at the same time, who has faith to believe he will do just that.

    Take no credit away from the Spurs, if they walk away champions nobody will say they don’t deserve it.

  13. mojospdx - Jun 12, 2013 at 11:41 AM

    Piston, Maves, Lakers, and Celtics have all passed by and the Spurs are still here. You could label them a dynesty, or at least make the argument. They are a team that has a team mentality. This article highlights a player in the system that does his job, just like the rest of the team. “No one can stop the Kang except the Kang?” If you define stop as allowing zero points then maybe that statement is true. If you are a player who can be “stopped” in the NBA than you are probably not a star. Shutting someone down in this context means you make them inefective. Maybe James scores 30 pts but do you get key stops when you need them or turnovers when you need them. How hard does a player have to work to get his 30 pts? If Lebron scores 30 pts but it takes him 3-4 seconds longer to get to the rim does that effect that game?

    There are lots of people who never lived up to the hype even when they had all the tools. You can show me his amazing stats and regular season MVP’s but in the end it’s the rings. Malone, Barkely, Drexler, Iverson, all great players but are never in the conversation as the greatest. At the end of his career where will Lebron end up. After claiming they could win 7 championships here will one do him justice?

  14. thenew013 - Jun 12, 2013 at 12:26 PM

    I want the Heat to lose but I dont want it to be b/c LeBron is off his game. I dont think Leonard or Green can stop him he is just missing shots he normally makes. Maybe its fatigue. Maybe its him getting in his own head but it definitely aint Kawhi Leonard. The Pacers are a better defense IMO and he played exceptional. So get your sh** together LeBron and be the best in the game just dont win.

  15. chitownjeff - Jun 12, 2013 at 12:35 PM

    Just.. never again.. never again with the Jordan comparisons..that’s all. Lebron is the best player in the game today.. he’s just got several noticable flaws.. some mental. some in his game. No way in the world should we be looking at game four and LBJ hasn’t scored twenty points yet. The “facilatating” stuff is nonsensical. Chris Bosh and D Wade know where they should be and should get their demand the rock and deliver. Both are clearing number one player money.. no excuse for how crappy they’ve both been. It seems the that ego’s are too fragile.. seems that the balance isn’t right. When things aren’t going well none of the three are the kind of guys who can tote the groceries.. everything always has to be clicking.

    Gary Neal and Danny Green are great stories.. but really? You got your butt handed to you by one guy who wasnt drafted and the other who didnt make it out of his first training camp?

  16. azarkhan - Jun 12, 2013 at 12:53 PM

    I think Kawhi Leonard has enough physical talent, mental toughness and work ethic so that when his career is over, he might eventually be considered for the Hall of Fame. Obviously it’s early, but his size, quickness and outstanding play on the defensive end are reminiscent of Scottie Pippin.

    Anyway, if the Spurs win this series, Kawhi can check two boxes on his resume: won NBA championship and successfully defended the best player in the NBA.

  17. nard100 - Jun 12, 2013 at 1:52 PM

    Remember when Paul George was the next “superstar” to guard LeBron and the Pacers were going to shut him down? How’d that work out? Exactly. LeBron figured it out and took care of business. He will do it again. All he has to do is win one more game and get back to Miami and everything will take care of itself.

  18. 8nflfan7 - Jun 12, 2013 at 3:21 PM

    I LIKE THIS KID.. HES RELLI SHOWING HE CAN DEFEND. REBOUND. STEALS. ..

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