Jun 11, 2014, 1:30 AM EST
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.
Nov 29, 2014, 1:00 AM EST
The Thunder looked like the Thunder again.
Nov 28, 2014, 11:00 PM EST
Nov 28, 2014, 9:30 PM EST
Butler is worth way more than that, and he knows it.
Nov 28, 2014, 8:00 PM EST
Classy move by CP3.
Nov 28, 2014, 6:30 PM EST
He’s the team’s leading scorer (which says a lot about the Sixers’ offense).
Nov 28, 2014, 5:00 PM EST
Adam Silver has called it his top priority
Nov 28, 2014, 3:40 PM EST
Indiana hosts Magic
Nov 28, 2014, 2:10 PM EST
Melo said it came down to Bulls and Knicks
Nov 28, 2014, 12:39 PM EST
Grizzlies’ win upheld
Nov 28, 2014, 12:25 PM EST
To reach the 49 wins it took to make the playoffs in the West last season, the Thunder need to go 45-21 the rest of the way.
Nov 28, 2014, 11:00 AM EST
What about Chris Paul?
Nov 28, 2014, 9:30 AM EST
Mavericks own bitter about how Fisher left Dallas
Nov 28, 2014, 8:00 AM EST
I’d take this rumor with a grain or 12 of salt, but…
Nov 28, 2014, 1:51 AM EST
Scottie Pippen made the list, too.
Nov 27, 2014, 11:00 PM EST
Parker gets the rookie treatment from the official.
Nov 27, 2014, 9:30 PM EST
Davis is averaging 17.7 shots per game.
Nov 27, 2014, 8:00 PM EST
Sager will receive clearance to fly in January.
Nov 27, 2014, 6:30 PM EST
Rose says he is feeling better about his health.
Nov 27, 2014, 5:00 PM EST
Michael Malone increases pressure on sometimes-combustible Cousins
Nov 27, 2014, 3:30 PM EST
Celtics forward in final year of contract
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- NBA denies Kings’ protest 3
- Russell Westbrook returns to court tonight for Thunder vs. Knicks 9
- Kobe Bryant says Gary Payton, Kevin Garnett among best trash talkers he’s faced 11
- PBT’s Wednesday NBA Winners/Losers: Ettore Messina making history for Spurs 1
- LeBron James, Cavaliers have kind of game they need to replicate blowing out Wizards 5
- Gregg Popovich to miss game following ‘minor medical procedure’ 8
- PBT Extra: Anthony Davis’s MVP-level play, the Spurs and things to be thankful for 8