SAN ANTONIO — If there was a singular moment all season, it came about six weeks ago when Kawhi Leonard rose up to stick in a rainbow jumper over Nene and then appeared right out of the ether at the other end of the court to snuff out a last-ditch drive by James Harden to reject the Rockets.
“The block is what makes him special,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
In a very different kind of way.
While Harden and Russell Westbrook have traded crazy shots, obscene point totals and high-flying triple-doubles to make their cases for the MVP Award, Leonard has stayed down-to-earth to carry the Spurs to 61 wins in their first season without franchise icon Tim Duncan and now a 2-0 lead on the Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs.
If the duel about 200 miles down I-10 between Westbrook and Harden is where the loud fireworks light up the sky and have the potential to burn down the house, Leonard is more like flood waters that arrive fast and silent in dead of night, but no less lethal.
After equaling his career playoff high with 32 points in the series opener, Leonard came back to eclipse that with 37 in Game 2 along a deadly-efficient line of 9-for-14 shooting from the field and 19-for-19 at the free throw line as San Antonio ground out a 96-82 win on Monday night at the AT&T Center.
“He’s a special guy,” Popovich said. “I think he’s the best two-way player in the league. I don’t think there’s anybody else that does what he does at both ends of the court, night after night.”
Leonard’s had been a steady rise through his first five NBA seasons, but faced the question of how he’d fully embrace the official role of team leader in Year 6 without Duncan.
In a full bear hug, it seems.
It was as if he’d been born to the position rather than someone who has toiled relentlessly through the offseasons to steadily add skills and expand his game.
Now in full bloom as a superstar, Leonard is drawing the double teams from opposing defenses that one would expect and simply taking them in stride.
“Obviously if I’m getting doubled every single night, then I get more comfortable at dribbling the ball,” Leonard said. “Being more patient, seeing where the guys are coming from, starting to bait on the other team, start getting the hockey assists.”
"I think he’s the best two-way player in the league. I don’t think there’s anybody else that does what he does at both ends of the court, night after night.”
It fits perfectly into the Spurs’ scheme of constantly moving the ball and finding the open man. The more Leonard can see the doubles coming, anticipate from where and spot the teammate that has been left open, the more the offense will flourish.
But before he looks to pass, Leonard is looking to force the action and make something happen for himself. He opened the scoring in Game 2 by blowing past 40-year-old Grizzlies would-be defender Vince Carter to slam home a dunk and then capped off the night by hammering one down right in the face of Memphis’ Marc Gasol.
There were step-back jumpers over outstretched arms and there quick dribbles to create space for mid-range stabs at the bucket. More than anything, there was Leonard time and time again using his quick first step or his strength and sheer will to slip through a crack in the defense to attack the basket. That’s how you wind up with 19 free throw attempts in a single game. He is now 28-for-28 at the line in the series. Leonard knows they’re not going to be able to stop him and so he makes them commit fouls. All the while creating havoc with his defense.
“It’s a comfort to have him there doing what he does for us and it’s a lot of fun to watch,” said teammate Manu Ginobili. “We are watching the growth of something very special.”
“We are watching the growth of something very special.”
The consistency of his performance since October has earned Leonard his spot in the MVP conversation. But it’s what he does from this point on through the playoffs that can elevate his stature and leave a permanent mark. It was one thing to deliver a stunning performance that won him the MVP Award of The Finals in 2014. However, that was a short-term accomplishment. The burden he now carries is much greater.
“I’m just concentrating on playing basketball and trying to find a way to get better,” Leonard said.
The deep water keeps rising.
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