For many people, it was the first time they’d heard him speak. After Game 5 of the NBA Finals when the San Antonio Spurs defeated the two-time defending champion Miami Heat by a record-setting margin, the late Stuart Scott got a chance to briefly interview Kawhi Leonard in front of the sellout crowd at the AT&T Center.
When asked about his sentiments regarding this impressive feat, he said, “It’s just surreal to me, I had a great group of guys behind me.” For his entire career, albeit it has been a short one thus far, his humility has been rather conspicuous, but his quietness should never be mistaken or misconstrued – this man plays the game with a level of aggressiveness that warrants adulation of the highest order.
It has been somewhat of a struggle this year for the reigning Finals MVP, as he had to miss 17 games due to a torn ligament in his shooting hand.
Prior to the injury, Leonard averaged 15.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and two steals, which are superb numbers. His length and athleticism is what catapults him to success. As the guy who often draws the assignment of guarding the opposition’s best player, Leonard has a propensity to cause disruption using his active hands and long arms.
Having Leonard back in the lineup makes everything much easier for Gregg Popovich and the Spurs. In fact, they’re 15-5 on the season when their regular starting lineup plays. (Parker, Green, Leonard, Duncan, and Splitter) San Antonio went 8-9 without Kawhi in the lineup, and since he has returned, they’ve looked like a much better team.
In the last 10 games, Leonard has averaged 18.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.1 steals, which has propelled the Spurs to an 8-2 record. For a team that prides themselves on excellent decision-making and ball movement, his 2.9 assists and 50 percent shooting during this stretch have certainly reified coach Pop’s philosophy.
Leading his team in scoring (16.0) and the league in steals (2.3), there’s no skepticism as to how important Kawhi is to his team. He’s also second in PER (21.4) and first in minutes played on San Antonio. (31.9) Is it safe to say that if the Spurs have aspirations of hanging another banner, their most important player might be this very guy?
In term of usage percentage, an argument can be made that it’s Tony Parker, who leads the team in this category. I’ve long said that he’s the motor of this group and would be the difference maker, and it reigned factual when he was in-and-out of the lineup. But close behind him, or maybe even tied, would have to be Leonard with his outstanding ability to significantly affect both ends of the floor.
In Wednesday night’s decisive win over the Thunder, the Spurs were the only home team to win their game, as road teams went 12-1:
NBA road teams went 12-1 today — the .923 winning percentage is the best for a single day in NBA history- min. 10 games (via @eliassports)
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 26, 2015
The Spurs wanted no part of being involved in that stat, improving to 11-3 since February 27 with the 39-point victory over OKC.
Since February 27, the Spurs have the second-best record in the league (only the Warriors at 14-2 are better) and rank first in offensive efficiency (113.1), field goal percentage (50 percent), and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.0) during that span, according to ESPN Stats & Info. What a difference having the Finals MVP back in your lineup makes, eh?
As I alluded to, Leonard does indeed lead the league in steals per game. and that’ll have a huge impact on the Spurs in the postseason. When the tempo slows down and teams get into their half-court sets, Leonard can get into the passing lanes, and force straight up one-on-one turnovers that can lead to fast break points on the other end.
With Leonard wreaking havoc on both ends, the Spurs look like a different team than earlier in the year. For much of this season, the defending champs haven’t looked very “Spurs-like,” floating around the bottom tier of the Western Conference playoff picture. I had surmised this group was actually suffering from winning it all last June. They played with such a level of desperation and ferocity as they looked to overcome one of the most heartbreaking losses we’ve ever seen in 2013. In an effort to right their wrongs, they channeled that motivation given to them as a result of that debacle and crushed the Heat.
But now they’re getting back to Spurs basketball just in time for the postseason. Parker and Leonard playing to their highest potential would net positive results for San Antonio. Anything short of that could see them get bounced early in the playoffs.
Sure, they’ll still need Tim Duncan to put up numbers at this advanced age as he continues to defy Father Time. They’ll also need Danny Green’s 41 percent shooting from beyond the arc and Manu Ginobili’s shot-making ability. And throw in Patty Mills; he’ll need to channel some of that fiery edge he displayed in last year’s playoffs.
In the aforementioned NBA Finals trophy ceremony, Adam Silver said, “Kawhi Leonard, the fans of San Antonio know how great you are and now the whole world knows.” That was after he watched Leonard average 17.8 points and 6.4 rebounds, while shooting a blistering 61 percent from the field and 58 percent from downtown in five games.
You can think back to how he missed one of two free throws late in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals and how it was a detriment to his team’s chances. You can also think back to how those demons struck again when he missed two against LeBron’s new team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, back in an overtime loss on March 12. But one thing you won’t be able to forget was his coronation on Father’s Day last year. This coming six years after his father, who he deeply loved, was murdered. From the moment he lost him, Kawhi sought to make his dad proud. Becoming the youngest player to win Finals MVP since his current teammate Duncan did it back in 1999, and the second-youngest since the award was created in 1969, was a great start.
The motivation is different for the Spurs this year. It’s not about avenging the previous year’s debacle. This time it’s about adding to the organization’s legacy by hoisting the Larry O’ Brien Trophy in back-to-back years for the first time in franchise history. Ready for the playoffs yet? I know Kawhi Leonard is.