Skip to content

Kawhi Leonard showcases next dimension in quest to lead Spurs

Jun 11, 2014, 1:30 AM EST

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Report: Cavaliers GM passed on trading for Corey Brewer, hopes to add defensive big man instead

    Dec 20, 2014, 9:00 PM EST

    David Griffin AP

    Cavaliers are tied with the Pistons for 23rd in defensive efficiency.

  2. Report: Kings discussing trade for Deron Williams with Nets

    Dec 20, 2014, 7:11 PM EST

    New Jersey Nets practice 05/07/2014 AP

    Kings are looking to make a splash, and Williams has been made available in trade by the Nets.

  3. Report: Multiple teams contacting Suns trying to trade for Goran Dragic

    Dec 20, 2014, 6:30 PM EST

    Phoenix Suns Media Day Phoenix Suns Media Day

    Dragic will opt out of the final year of his deal to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.

  4. Jeremy Lin after Kobe misses at the buzzer: ‘I like game-winners too’

    Dec 20, 2014, 9:30 AM EST

    Memphis Grizzlies v Los Angeles Lakers Getty Images

    Lin understands why Bryant always gets the ball in these situations, but admits he’d like to get some opportunities.

  5. Serge Ibaka blocks Carlos Boozer at the rim, does Mutombo finger wag (VIDEO)

    Dec 20, 2014, 8:00 AM EST

    Serge Ibaka, Carlos Boozer AP

    As the Thunder ended up winning by one, 104-103, this block ended up being very important.

  6. Damian Lillard drops career high 43, leads Blazers to 3OT win over Spurs (VIDEO)

    Dec 20, 2014, 2:07 AM EST

    Damian Lillard AP

    Lillard needs to get mentioned with the game’s top point guards.

  7. Former No. 2 overall pick Darko Milicic loses first kickboxing fight (VIDEO)

    Dec 20, 2014, 12:02 AM EST

    Former NBA player now trying to make his way as a fighter.

  8. Danny Ainge says uncertainty about Celtics’ ability to re-sign Rajon Rondo prompted trade to Dallas

    Dec 19, 2014, 10:50 PM EST

    Danny Ainge AP

    There are a whole host of reasons Rondo was traded; this is just the most convenient for Boston’s brass.

  9. Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard has torn ligament in right hand, return unclear

    Dec 19, 2014, 7:25 PM EST

    Kawhi Leonard AP

    Leonard was the Finals MVP for San Antonio last season.

  10. Kevin Durant to sit out vs. Lakers with ankle sprain

    Dec 19, 2014, 6:35 PM EST

    Oklahoma City Thunder v Golden State Warriors Getty Images

    This is the smart move by the Thunder.

  11. Kendrick Perkins: Rajon Rondo wanted out of Boston

    Dec 19, 2014, 5:59 PM EST

    Orlando Magic v Boston Celtics, Game 6 Getty Images

    It’s kind of moot now, but it’s not a surprise.

Featured video

Jabari Parker injury latest for disappointing rookie class
Top 10 NBA Player Searches
  1. K. Martin (7539)
  2. C. Bosh (7254)
  3. T. Parker (6882)
  4. D. Favors (6846)
  5. T. Jones (6736)
  1. A. Bogut (6710)
  2. K. Durant (6445)
  3. M. Smart (6439)
  4. K. Leonard (6390)
  5. D. Lee (6364)