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Kawhi Leonard showcases next dimension in quest to lead Spurs

Jun 11, 2014, 1:30 AM EDT

2014 NBA Finals - Game Three Getty Images

What got into Kawhi Leonard?

After failing to crack double digits in Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals, Leonard led the Spurs with 29 points in their 111-92 Game 3 win over the Heat on Tuesday.

“We just want him to be who he’s been the whole year – the regular season and the playoffs,” Gregg Popovich said.

No, seriously, Pop. What got into Leonard?

“He was just himself,” the San Antonio coach said. “I don’t know what you’re looking for.”

Popovich might be incredulous because he saw this coming so long ago, he can’t understand what took so long for everyone else to catch up. Before last season, Popovich predicted Leonard would become the face of the Spurs.

Now, it might be happening before our eyes.

The 22-year-old Leonard has drawn praise from all types, but the analytically inclined have particularly latched onto his all-around production. He led San Antonio in win shares during last year’s playoffs and again during this year’s regular season.

But being the face of a franchise, even the Spurs, involves more than quiet efficiency. It requires becoming the focal point at times, something Leonard had never done to this extent – not even at San Diego State, let alone in the NBA.

His 29 points were the most he’d scored since high school.

In the last eight years, the only other players to score so much in a Finals game are LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Paul Pierce and Tony Parker – each multiple-time All-Stars.

Leonard has yet to receive that recognition even once, but if he keeps scoring like this, his contributions will be impossible to ignore.

He aggressively drove to the hoop and made open shots from beyond the arc, requiring just 13 shots to score his 29 points. And he still had enough energy left to defend LeBron, who spent just 64 seconds on the court without Leonard.

There are only so many two-way stars in the league, and Leonard is building his case for a seat at the table as his offense catches up to his defense.

The difference between Leonard and Paul George – a two-time All-NBA third teamer, recipient of a max contract and unquestioned best player on a team that has made consecutive conference finals – is not as great as it appears at first glance. Leonard, a year younger than George, has time to make up whatever difference exists.

Leonard used another one of those two-way stars to help find his way after struggling earlier this series.

“LeBron is very aggressive on the offensive end and defensive end,” Leonard said on ESPN. “So, just trying to match his intensity and trying keep my energy up and just staying hydrated throughout the game.”

That’s a nice subtle jab from a member of the Spurs, an organization paranoid about surrendering any competitive advantage. Maybe Leonard should know better – even if that was an unintended reference to LeBron’s cramps – because anything might motivate LeBron. But Leonard is still just 22 and learning the ropes.

Even if he doesn’t play like it.

For the second straight year, Leonard is the youngest player by four years in the Finals. Last season, he excelled, averaging a double-double. In his return to basketball’s biggest stage, Leonard took a bit longer to get going, but he made up for lost time in Game 3. Since at least 1985, only Kobe Bryant has scored so many points in a Finals game at such a young age.

Constantly, Leonard is evolving.

“He’s got to be one of our better players on the court, or we’re not good enough,” Popovich said. “That’s just the way it is. He’s got that kind of talent.”

That’s no longer a forecast of a distant future.

It’s the reality of the present.

  1. nflcrimerankingscom - Jun 11, 2014 at 1:38 AM

    Both teams have players near their peaks or on the backside of their careers.

    But you could argue that only the Spurs have several players that are actually on the rise from last year (Leonard, Patty Mills, maybe Splitter?). Norris Cole and Chalmers haven’t changed much. Might make all the difference from last year. Heck one free throw would have made the difference!

    • antistratfordian - Jun 11, 2014 at 2:38 AM

      But Leonard is not on the rise from last year. He’s been playing worse.

      • kavika6 - Jun 11, 2014 at 5:15 AM

        Try to convince the Miami Heat of that.

      • antistratfordian - Jun 11, 2014 at 5:39 PM

        They already know.

      • therealroman - Jun 11, 2014 at 9:41 AM

        Why so salty?!?

        With your basketball knowledge, you should be able to appreciate a guy that plays hard, smart & honest. There’s NOTHING about Kawhi’s game that’s not honest and real, he’s a great athlete with a great attitude. If you will, he’s like a young, very athletic Battier – all about team, not about show or stats. Gotta appreciate a player like that, right?!?

        I agree that at this point though, he can’t carry a team by himself (even though he’s still very young & with his work ethic, I’m sure he’s gonna get better in the next years). That’s not what the Spurs want though, they want excellent players to play within themselves & the system, and that’s exactely what Kawhi has been giving them.
        Also: There was a sense of fire/urgency/self-confidence about him last night that was crazy. If he can keep that “no hesitation”-mentality & do it consistently, he’s a problem

      • antistratfordian - Jun 11, 2014 at 6:24 PM

        Honest and real? What are you even talking about? I’ve only seen him play basketball. I don’t know anything about whether he’s “honest and real.”

        He’s a good player, and if I was a coach I would love to have him on my team – but I know there are fans who think he’s going to be the next superstar SF and that is a pipe dream.

      • kinggw - Jun 11, 2014 at 11:02 AM

        You don’t know him so lets stop with the smart and honest bit. Secondly, he had a great game but it was what we call an outlier. He was gifted his first five points by the refs and got hot from there.

        He had a good game, but lets put everything into perspective. More than likely it won’t happen again.

      • anjohn39 - Jun 15, 2014 at 3:14 PM

        Leonard not on the rise ? Did you see the stats during the reg season when he was out compared to when he played .They won more with him more than any other Spurs team. Against the Thunder he played well vs kd and russle. Pop said it best “leonard is just now learning that he can actually compete in this the league against top not players. He and Paul george are the best on ball defender that can also get you points on the other end especially when the officials actually allow them to play defense. Just face it the Nba has other athletes that do different things than just Lebron. Leonard is lighter a inch smaller, longer wing span ,moves his feet and has quick hands. Game 1 and 2 Leonard has foul trouble . Game 2 and 3 no foul trouble and outplays LBJ. Has LBj got 1o rebounds in this entire playoffs ?

      • antistratfordian - Jun 15, 2014 at 6:49 PM

        I meant from playoffs to playoffs. Overall, he was better last year.

  2. norcalkingsfan - Jun 11, 2014 at 1:43 AM

    Reminded me of Madison Bumgarner, circa 2010 World Series.

  3. 00maltliquor - Jun 11, 2014 at 1:51 AM

    Don’t get crazy with this 2way stuff. Dudes scoring 13 points or less next game.

    • 00maltliquor - Jun 12, 2014 at 2:00 AM

      Alright, I’ll remember all these thumbs down after next games all said and done. Y’all act like I don’t follow the NBA and all its teams and players closely and religiously. If he scores even 18 or more I’d be beyond shocked.

      Scoring is not part of his game. He’ll get you a decent scoring game every so often, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not what you guys think he is.

  4. seattlesuperchronic - Jun 11, 2014 at 2:35 AM

    I like basketball.

  5. antistratfordian - Jun 11, 2014 at 2:39 AM

    Oh please. This is the same kind of overreaction after Green scored 27 in Game 3 last year. And Leonard is 22 years, 346 days old. So he’s basically 23. And he’s not anywhere near good enough for anyone to be thinking about him carrying a franchise any time soon.

    • bucrightoff - Jun 11, 2014 at 8:11 AM

      And LeBron couldn’t carry a franchise either, hence running to Miami. Leonard can be one of the absolute best two way players in basketball. What a horrible thing to be.

      • kinggw - Jun 11, 2014 at 11:09 AM

        But he’s not, he’s not even close. He’s a good defender, when he’s not guarding Lebron. He’s the fourth option on a very talented team. He scores mostly in transition and because no one pays attention to him.

        As Anti mentioned, people are overreacting to a solid yet unsustainable from Leonard.

      • bucrightoff - Jun 11, 2014 at 11:19 AM

        And he’s 22 years old. Amazing how people (mostly Heat fans) think this is it for him, nowhere to go but down. When he came into the league, the year he was drafted he rated out as the worst shooting wing in the draft. So with a little development, he’s now basically a 50% shooter from the field and 40% from 3. This might shock you, but players can actually get better over time. Leonard is still very young, he’s got room to grow, and he’s playing for the model franchise in sports. He’ll get better, don’t worry.

      • antistratfordian - Jun 11, 2014 at 6:00 PM

        Oh, LeBron didn’t carry the Cavs when they went to the finals and were winning 60 games a season? Who was then? Mo Williams?

        Leonard cannot be one of the “absolute best” two way players in basketball. You do realize that 29 points is the most he’s ever scored since high school, right? To rank among the best two way players he’s going to need to average something close to that every single game. That’s not him. He’s not that guy.

      • 00maltliquor - Jun 12, 2014 at 2:08 AM

        @ kinggw

        You’re right. I see him as a PERFECT 3rd banana guy in the way I see guys like Parsons, Hayward & Batum. HE’S NOT A FACE OF FRANCHISE GUY guys! It looks like I’m a hater and I’M NOT. I just know what I’m talking about, I watch WAAAAY to much basketball. If the Spurs are counting on him to be their #1 or 2 guy once the old 3 leave they are in serious trouble.

    • duhwighthoward - Jun 11, 2014 at 9:23 AM

      @antistrapondildo, shouldn’t you at least be taking pleasure in the NBA Finals record LeBron set last night?

      • anjohn39 - Jun 15, 2014 at 3:23 PM

        @ 00maltiquor yeah because the Spurs Franchise doesn’t know what there talking about. The nba is changing and its about 2way players now. He fits the Mold and he can get you 20 and 10 plus stick the others teams best player. That is so valuable

  6. kavika6 - Jun 11, 2014 at 5:16 AM

    See what Leonard can do when he isn’t in constant foul trouble due to ticky-tack foul calls?

  7. ravenswhat - Jun 11, 2014 at 7:02 AM

    Did you really just say he’s close to Paul George? Really??

    • spursareold - Jun 11, 2014 at 10:25 AM

      Wait until Tim and Manu retire and he gets more touches. He has to share the ball WAY more than PG does.

      • kinggw - Jun 11, 2014 at 11:11 AM

        And when that happens he’ll actually face a double team, something George has seen plenty the last few years. It’s easy to sneak up people when you’re the fourth option on a talented team.

      • spursareold - Jun 11, 2014 at 11:42 AM

        The Spurs have a better system than Indy. If they double KL, someone is open. That system isn’t going away. The Spurs sat T,T,&M, and beat a GS playoff team in their building in the regular season. They went in again later with just Parker and beat them again.

      • msnyc10 - Jun 20, 2014 at 11:19 AM

        Doubling Kawhi is not like doubling George. That’s the whole point of the Spurs, when you pick your poison you have five vials to pick from.

    • anjohn39 - Jun 15, 2014 at 3:26 PM

      In a sense he is. P/g is sure when to do what .He bails the other teams out by shooting not needed three’s and doesn’t go to hole enough. Leonard has played down low since college he’s stronger than p/g but he knows what he needs to do for his team . P/g is a little nonchalant with the ball and he allows Lbj to get in his head..not leonard

  8. newyorkball82 - Jun 11, 2014 at 7:48 AM

    Kawhi Leonard played an awesome game and the best part about his style is that when he makes a big shot, he just keeps his head down and focused. No big show about it… and when he commits a foul, its the same thing, no complaining or whining. You gotta respect him and what he did on this stage at his age. He just seems like a cool dude, and I think he is going to be a great player. 29 points while having to guard Lebron is no joke. Good for him, and bad for the Heat if he keeps playing like this.

    • kevindoc593 - Jun 11, 2014 at 8:34 AM

      Heat fan here, I agree totally. Kawhi is no joke “they” call him the quietest player in the league and for good reason just like you said the man plays the game the right way and when you do that good things happen.

      Now as far as last nights game, when the Spurs (any team) starts a game shooting like that there is nothing any team can do about it. That being said Bosh barely was involved offensively I think he only had 14 touches total for the game no where near enough for him, It seemed that Chalmers was getting the early shots that Bosh usually takes in the 1st to get going.

      And as far as the Heat fans who left early I’m ashamed and there is nothing I can say to stick up for those so called fans. I don’t care that we lost you don’t leave a Finals game with 3 minutes left on the clock. PERIOD.

    • spursareold - Jun 11, 2014 at 10:24 AM

      I remember after the Finals last year Wade said he didn’t even know what Kawhi’s voice sounded like.

  9. unxpexted1 - Jun 11, 2014 at 8:25 AM

    I like Kawhi Leonard but lets stop if you really think he going to take the reigns of the spurs after this era. He can be the 2nd best player on your team tops, but nothing about his game shows he can lead a team. He has a decent J, no handles or barely any ability to drive to the basket. He’s a 3 and D guy with athleticism.

    • 00maltliquor - Jun 12, 2014 at 2:16 AM

      *3rd best player tops

      • 00maltliquor - Jun 12, 2014 at 2:17 AM

        …On a successful team

    • anjohn39 - Jun 15, 2014 at 3:31 PM

      If he has no handles..I wonder why i never saw Lbj or Wade rip him nor Durant or Westbrook. Ever series he’s dunked in someones centers face. He is a 6″7 athlete that can get to the rim when he is assertive. You have no ide what your talking about

  10. 24thesho - Jun 11, 2014 at 8:28 AM

    I just really, really don’t understand why Lebron did not stick to the game plan he executed in game 2.

    • spursareold - Jun 11, 2014 at 10:48 AM

      LeBron can’t defend 5 guys. Miami only scored 6 fewer point than game #2. The problem is that they gave up 15 MORE points than game #2. He’s also NOT going to shoot the jumper like he did in gmae #2 very often.

    • anjohn39 - Jun 15, 2014 at 3:33 PM

      They only won by 2 point in game 2 and Spurs missed 4 f/t the last 3 minutes. LBj doesn’t shoot jumpers like that .He never has and never will…remember he went on that spree when leonard was on the bench in foul trouble

  11. aboogy123456 - Jun 11, 2014 at 8:42 AM

    It’s not about how many points Kawhi scored. He obviously got hot and probably won’t get 29 again the rest of the series. A couple things that stood out to me was that he minimized turnovers (only 1), and he stayed out of foul trouble and was engaged on LeBron the whole game. Lebron’s field goal percentage was great but he only was able to take 14 shots, and a lot of that was the great defense of Leonard. While his scoring was an anomally, most of what we saw last night should be expected on a regular basis.

    • asimonetti88 - Jun 11, 2014 at 10:57 AM

      The Spurs don’t need him to score 29 again if he can do the other things you mentioned- limit turnovers, and stay out of foul trouble while minimizing LeBron’s impact. The 29 points was just an added bonus! Leonard played one of the best individual games of the playoffs last night.

  12. loungefly74 - Jun 11, 2014 at 8:44 AM

    a hot hand from unexpected players (while the stars play their normal game) usually leads to wins. now the spurs just need to have Tiago go for 40 in game 4!

    good for the kid. things like this while being surrounded by a strong supporting cast may lead to great things.

  13. andreboy1 - Jun 11, 2014 at 8:45 AM

    If he’s the face of the Spurs then they’ll just be an eighth seed every year. He’s a complimentary player with a lot of skills but he’s not a star.

    • robigd - Jun 11, 2014 at 9:04 AM

      Complimentary players don’t give the best player on the planet fits on both ends of the floor. You don’t have to be a star to make the Spurs the Spurs. Haven’t you been watching basketball the last 15 years?

      • hickoryhigh - Jun 11, 2014 at 10:03 AM

        Yeah, Leonard can definitely give James fits. Oh, not LeBron . . . I meant Gloria. See, Duncan, Parker, and Ginobli are too old for Gloria James, but Kawhi is perfect for her. And we all know how LeBron responds when somebody bangs his mom!

      • kinggw - Jun 11, 2014 at 11:18 AM

        Leonard hasn’t given LBJ fits on both sides of the court. You people are creating your own narrative.

      • robigd - Jun 11, 2014 at 11:57 AM

        kinggw,

        You are clearly a Heat apologist who left the game early. Yes, I went back and saw you on DVR. LBJ, 7 turnovers, 8 pts in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th quarters. When the refs don’t call BS fouls against Leonard, LBJ has to actually work on both ends of the floor.

    • spursareold - Jun 11, 2014 at 10:32 AM

      Is that why USA*Basketball is after him?

      • 00maltliquor - Jun 12, 2014 at 2:25 AM

        You need defense. It’s one half of what the games all about. The fact that he can give you up to 14 points 3/5ths of the time is why he’s getting looks, unlike guys like Tony Allen.

      • 00maltliquor - Jun 12, 2014 at 2:29 AM

        That and he’s a go-with-the-flow type of guy. He doesn’t have an ego or try to be flashy. He is the epitome of what the Spurs are, go to work with your hard hat and get the job done then go home to your family, wash-rinse-repeat. Not a diss, I absolutely love the kid but I’m just being objective.

  14. robigd - Jun 11, 2014 at 8:58 AM

    Let’s be honest. Miami expended a lot of energy trying to get into that game. LBJ played 40+ minutes, their point guard play has been dismal, the “big 2″ shows up in spurts, and when the Spurs move the ball, Miami looks lost. Depending on which Jekyll and Hyde Heat team shows up in G4, they may be in trouble.

    Also, on Leonard, the guy is humble, emotionless, doesn’t get mad, doesn’t argue about bad calls (and there are A LOT of them), and is a straight up baller. Good role model for children.

    • robigd - Jun 11, 2014 at 9:07 AM

      Let me also add that Miami counted on a rare hot streak by a guy named Rashard Lewis to keep them within 30 at the half. Miami’s success depends on their aging role players more so than any other team in the league.

    • spursareold - Jun 11, 2014 at 10:39 AM

      One thing Miami has to realize as their core ages is that aging role players will no longer work. SA had that realization after the Memphis series in 2011, and now look at them:

      Tiago 29
      Beli 28
      Green 26
      Patty 25

      The Spurs haven’t signed a player over 30 to put into their rotation since Antonio McDyess in 2009.

      • gostlcards5 - Jun 11, 2014 at 1:29 PM

        I don’t completely agree with that. Lewis has been huge at times for Miami. Miami just sometimes doesn’t work to get the right guys involved at the right times…meaning it can become the “big 2″ show. Bosh not being involved last night was big for the Spurs.

      • spursareold - Jun 11, 2014 at 5:29 PM

        @gostlcards5 Older roleplayers can be effective in short bursts, but you can’t hang your hat on them as a season + post season plan. What Miami will find as their core ages is that teams simply run circles around you with better athleticism or ball movement. Wade is already starting to see it, and it’s being reflected in the slow rotations to cover Spurs shooters and drivers.

        After the Phoenix series in 2010 and the Memphis series in 2011, I really thought the Spurs were done. I figured that Duncan might play another year and then go off into the sunset with 15 years on his resume.

        They traded for the 2011 pick used on Kawhi. The next spring, after the lockout, they signed Mills after his China gig and a then 29 YO Boris Diaw after his buyout by Charlotte. Green was already there from the end of the previous season. Instant youth infusion, and here we are 3 years later with SA in 3 WCFs in a row and two Finals.

        Oh, and Bosh not being involved was a direct function of Diaw starting. He’s a MUCH better perimeter defender than Tiago. The Spurs had two lockstep substitions that literally only varied by seconds. If Bosh went in or out, Diaw did. If LeBron went in or out Kawhi did.

  15. bougin89 - Jun 11, 2014 at 9:19 AM

    I think it’s safe to say if Leonard outplays Lebron the Spurs are a good bet to win.

    I’ll pick up my captain obvious award now.

    • robigd - Jun 11, 2014 at 9:26 AM

      Having said that, I bet KL is on the bench midway thru the 1st with 2 fouls during game 4. I think the odds are high of Joey Crawford’s crew doing the next one.

      • bougin89 - Jun 11, 2014 at 9:29 AM

        Some of the calls against Leonard have been really ticky tack. The refs give quite an advantage to Lebron when he’s in the post against other perimeter players like Leonard. He can two hand shove guys but as soon as their is any contact from the defender they call it.

      • aboogy123456 - Jun 11, 2014 at 9:32 AM

        The NBA wants a long series, so I have no doubt that Green and Leonard might have some tough calls next game. They just have to be smart and not get calls on screens, offensive fouls, and dumb fouls like that.

      • kinggw - Jun 11, 2014 at 11:22 AM

        That’s funny you talk about Leonard and ticky tack calls. The tone for last night’s game was set on the first foul. Chalmers cleanly stripped Leonard, he lost the ball hooked Chalmers arm and was given a two shot shooting foul when he didn’t even have the ball. He then was given an and 1 when he drove the lane out of control and ran into Bosh.

        The Spurs have been the beneficiary of the calls the entirety of this series. It’s laughable to see you guys complain about ticky tack calls against Leonard when he cant defend James without holding or reaching in. The hypocrisy continues.

      • spursareold - Jun 11, 2014 at 11:49 AM

        A) Chalmers clean strip? Is that why Kawhi’s arm went backwards?
        B) It doesn’t matter if Bosh is set and Kawhi barrels into him IF HE’S IN THE RESTRICTED CIRCLE. That is a block 100% of the time.

      • damp1015 - Jun 11, 2014 at 2:52 PM

        I don’t see how the calls have been entirely in the Spurs favorite as kinggw states. Lebron does in fact get calls that alot of players don’t. As far as Leonard, the kid can play and he does give Lebron crap on both sides regardless of what any Heat fans say. Now I don’t know if Spurs will win, it looks like they have the Heat’s number this year but I will say that Leonard is secretly becoming one of the best 2-way players. I rather have him on my team than Paul George.

  16. rrhoe - Jun 11, 2014 at 9:59 AM

    I like KL,he accepts his role on the team and is willing to wait his turn and pick his spots. If Pop says he is the heir apparent then who are we to second guess him.

  17. robigd - Jun 11, 2014 at 11:59 AM

    This board has a flaw, it let someone create 2 accounts from the same IP address. kinggw and antistratfordian.

  18. jkirby317 - Jun 11, 2014 at 12:19 PM

    Man… I wish the Pacers kept Leonard and left GHILL in San Antonio. They could have waited and if available gotten HILL in FA and at a cheaper price. My initial thought about the trade was that if SA wants someone… the Pacers (or every team in the NBA) should too, right?

    • gostlcards5 - Jun 11, 2014 at 1:31 PM

      Yeah…having PG in the backcourt with Kawhi at SF would have been pretty awesome…a defensive nightmare for most opposing teams.

      • spursareold - Jun 11, 2014 at 5:40 PM

        ??? Granger was still an All Star type player at that point (2011). Kawhi would have barely played.

  19. pistolpete0903 - Jun 12, 2014 at 2:35 AM

    What a game!!! My few takeaways (Spurs fan, but most importantly a basketball fan; so would like to see great basketball from both sides with Spurs coming on top)
    1) Spurs were smoking hot; they might not get the same percentages. Having said that, many of the shots were high % shots (thanks to their ball movement) and not contested. So, Miami has to bring in their so-called ‘havoc’ defence every night.
    2) James game has always been based on his superior athletic ability more than his basketball skill. If he is going to clock in more than 40 minutes, his game is bound to suffer (the onus is on Wade to step up and play like the superstar everyone claims him to be). Also, Bosh can’t just be a 3-point shooter; he has to get in the low post as a true PF
    3) At some point, Chalmers is going to get his stroke going (he is getting some decent looks); the Spurs have to close on him.
    4) Diaw…vow!!!
    5) Compared to last year, I believe the longer the series drags, it’s better for the Spurs. the Heat a

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