MEMPHIS -- It does get a bit repetitious, doesn’t it? This MVP, best-player talk. It’ll all be settled soon at the NBA Awards Show on TNT come June 26. You say James Harden, someone else says Russell Westbrook, a know-it-all says LeBron James. And on and on.
What say one of the greatest coaches in NBA history?
“Kawhi Leonard, in my opinion, is the best player in the league right now.”
Gregg Popovich might be a little biased, of course, although he does bring plenty of credibility in these matters, having seen greatness through the prism of coaching on Olympic teams, NBA championship teams and lasting through several NBA eras.
He also had a courtside seat for the six-game first-round playoff series between his Spurs and the Memphis Grizzlies, which allowed him to behold the spectacle of Leonard while the small forward enhanced his own reputation for being a tornado on offense and defense. That is what’s at the heart of any praise of Leonard: His candle burns at both ends, and the defeated Grizzlies bear the first-degree scars to prove it.
Leonard finished off Memphis with 29 points by once again being a handful in the final moments of Game 6 on Thursday, when San Antonio pulled away. But he also added three steals, gave the Grizzlies fits by playing solid man-to-man defense and did so while also bailing out beaten teammates. For the series, Leonard averaged 31.2 points per game, two steals per game and logged 37.7 minutes per game of exhausting double-duty. That would wear out some players, yet Leonard was the most energetic and freshest player on the floor in fourth quarters.
The Spurs’ move to the Western Conference semifinals – where they’ll meet the Houston Rockets – will stir best-player talk once again (with Leonard taking on Harden). Back on March 6, during the height of MVP-mania, Leonard popped Harden’s campaign with a brilliant and signature sequence that embodied what Leonard is all about.
In the final seconds of the Spurs’ come-from-behind win, Leonard swished a 3-pointer off the dribble for the lead, then pinned Harden’s layup against the glass on the next play. The replays went viral.That offense-defense balance speaks loudly for Leonard, whose Spurs finished this season with a better record than Harden’s Rockets, Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder or LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Yet Leonard could finish behind all three when the MVP announcement comes.
Sometimes popularity and profile play indirect roles in these matters, and in that situation, Leonard loses rather big -- to his satisfaction. Few, if any, Kawhi commercials run in heavy rotation. There aren’t legions of social media types singing his praises. He doesn’t have a gimmick like a beard (Harden) or a snarl (Westbrook) or a self-given royal nickname (King James) although he is the last NBA player still rocking cornrows. In these regards, he’s built like the last Spurs MVP winner, Tim Duncan, in that he speaks softly, is willing to deflect attention and anxious to do his job and go home.
When told of Popovich’s comments Thursday, here was Leonard’s reply:
“Well, I didn’t really hear him say that, but as I’ve said before, I’m not trying to be the best player, I’m trying to be the best team. I don’t even think about it.”
“I don’t know (if he’s the best player right now) but I do know he’s amazing and that should be enough for anybody.”
If any other player says that, you’re suspicious. If Leonard says that, believe him.
The biggest growth to Leonard’s game clearly is his shooting and his confidence late in games. When the Spurs drafted him, he was a small forward who rebounded and defended well. he was a secondary option on offense. He averaged under 13 ppg his first three seasons and didn’t become a volume 3-point shooter until his fifth season.
Now in his sixth season, he’s comfortable anywhere on the floor, and has willingly become the Spurs’ premier player with the game on the line. Being a lead singer fits him now, a chilling development for the rest of the league.
The signature moment in the Memphis series was his spellbinding Game 4 when, in a loss, Leonard kept drilling shots on the Grizzlies late in the fourth quarter. He finished with 43 points and six steals and the Grizzlies -- as they have been all series -- were mostly helpless, a rare sight for a team that built on defense.
“They tried to put him in situations where they could limit him,” teammate Manu Ginobili said. “I don’t know (if he’s the best player right now) but I do know he’s amazing and that should be enough for anybody.”
Leonard’s helped offset the mostly mild results the Spurs got from LaMarcus Aldridge all series. Aldridge’s struggles placed a heavier burden on Leonard to score points and be a savior. There was one bright spot from the help department, however: Tony Parker behaved like it was 2007.
The ‘07 Finals MVP scored a playoff-and season-high 27 points in Game 6, shooting a career playoff-best 78 percent while flashing some of the off-the-dribble quickness from his prime. Parker did his damage against Memphis’ younger and underrated point guard Mike Conley, making it even more impressive.
“I heard some people say this year they thought he was done,” said Memphis coach David Fizdale. “Are you kidding me? Never underestimate the heart of a champion. That’s what champions do.”
Parker went scoreless in Game 3, but otherwise shot efficiently and was a factor for the Spurs, unlike during the regular season. Memphis perhaps underestimated him, and he made the Grizzlies pay on the pick-and-roll and looked for his shot, something he’ll needed to do more of against Houston.
Popovich said: “He’s done a masterful job of getting in shape down the stretch of the season and playing his best basketball in the playoffs. Finding people, scoring himself, working hard defensively, he’s had a magnificent playoffs.”
Speaking of magnificent, Leonard is gathering more steam both as a performer and in his amount of admirers. This comes at a time when the MVP talk mostly detoured away from him and the contrast will be interesting as the Houston series looms. Harden, it should be noted, looked rather bland -- from an MVP standpoint -- in Houston’s first-round series vs. Oklahoma City (41.1 percent shooting, 24 percent on 3-pointers and 5.6 turnovers per game).
In tight games, both players will own the ball and dictate what happens next. However, the true test will be defensively. Will Leonard will stick on Harden one-on-one in such crucial moments, which will allow the Spurs to keep a body on Houston’s 3-point shooters and limit Harden’s options?
As this series nears, Leonard hardly raised an eyebrow about being anointed best player by his coach, which curiously comes as the Spurs prepare to play against an MVP candidate.
“That changes every day, being the best player,” Leonard said. “Someone will have a bad game and someone will have a good game and then he’s the best player. If he has a bad game and I have a good game then I’m the best player.”
Which is why Leonard keeps a healthy and quiet perspective in these matters. The Spurs are headed to the next round against and his main purpose is to just keep advancing. He will not necessarily agree with Popovich, or ask you for to vote or campaign on his behalf.
Leonard will just suit up and say nothing, which is perfectly fine for someone whose squeaking sneakers speak loudly for him.
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