Jun 11, 2014, 1:30 AM EDT
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.
Dwight Howard elbows Andre Iguodala but avoids flagrant foul and suspension – for now, at least (video)
May 27, 2015, 11:50 PM EDT
Rockets center elbowed Andre Iguodala high
May 27, 2015, 11:36 PM EDT
That sounds bad. Is that bad?
May 27, 2015, 11:15 PM EDT
“Hey!” -Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, probably
May 27, 2015, 10:21 PM EDT
Will it stand?
May 27, 2015, 9:51 PM EDT
Who will it be (if anyone)?
May 27, 2015, 8:59 PM EDT
First Kobe, now Melo – Dudley goes scorched earth
May 27, 2015, 8:12 PM EDT
The Cavaliers are allowing 98.5 points per 100 possession in the playoffs, the best of the four teams to reach the conference Finals
May 27, 2015, 7:20 PM EDT
Will he become Anthony Davis’ next head coach?
Stephen Curry feels like there’s a bruise ‘all the way up and down’ his body, will likely wear arm sleeve in Game 5
May 27, 2015, 6:28 PM EDT
Warriors guard says he shot well with sleeve in shootaround
May 27, 2015, 5:35 PM EDT
If they want him gone, they just have to pull the trigger on the firing. Otherwise, bring him back.
May 27, 2015, 4:47 PM EDT
The Hawks had an exciting season, they filled an arena that in past years felt like a mausoleum, they played beautiful basketball for months at a time.
May 27, 2015, 3:59 PM EDT
May 27, 2015, 3:23 PM EDT
Free agents will still come to the Lakers, but their pool may be smaller than some other teams because of Kobe.
May 27, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT
There were plenty of rumors to the contrary.
May 27, 2015, 1:50 PM EDT
Suns don’t need any more young players.
May 27, 2015, 1:10 PM EDT
Plenty has changed since LeBron re-joined the Cavaliers last summer.
May 27, 2015, 12:30 PM EDT
Hawks, too, have some decisions to make this summer.
May 27, 2015, 11:50 AM EDT
The offers won’t be as strong as they were in December.
Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak: ‘Anywhere from 4-8 players could be in consideration’ for No. 2 pick in NBA Draft
May 27, 2015, 11:10 AM EDT
Eight seems like too many, but Kupchak has proven that he knows what he’s doing.
May 27, 2015, 10:30 AM EDT
Finals begin June 4; complete schedule enclosed.
- Dwight Howard hit with suspension-triggering technical foul 5
- PBT Extra: Cavaliers’ improved defense helps them to Finals 5
- Reports: Bulls getting closer to firing Tom Thibodeau 22
- PBT Extra: Despite ending, Hawks had season worth celebrating 3
- Bucks’ Jared Dudley: “Most guys don’t want to play with Kobe” 63
- PBT Extra: Expect a healthy Stephen Curry for Game 5… sorry Houston 4
- Hawks’ excellent season shouldn’t be discredited because of playoff exit 24
- Cavaliers complete sweep of Hawks, advance to NBA Finals 82