SAN ANTONIO — “M-V-P! M-V-P!”
The chant goes up on a regular basis in so any different arenas that it’s almost become part of the routine background to the entire NBA experience, like dancers that shimmy and music and beer prices that make your ears bleed.
Then there are the raw, visceral moments when the rote becomes real and the breath gets stuck somewhere in the diaphragm.
When Kawhi Leonard hit the leaning 25-foot, 3-pointer that put the San Antonio Spurs in front with 25 seconds left to play, the game still was not over. That didn’t happen until Leonard went to the other end of the court and slammed the door.
One second the Rockets’ James Harden was racing toward the basket and in the next a long and larcenous Leonard swooped in like a hawk snatching up a bunny in his talons for a meal.
Leonard’s come-from-behind block not only preserved the Spurs’ 112-110 victory — their eighth in a row — but should have refocused the race for MVP. For while Harden and Russell Westbrook have been piling up points and ridiculous stat lines since October, it is Leonard who has been relentlessly and ruthlessly constructing an all-around resume that makes him the most complete player in the game.
“I hope [the voters] understand,” said teammate Pau Gasol. “I hope they see. It’s not hard to see if you really watch. I think he’s very much deserving of getting the MVP this season. The way he’s playing, the way he’s contributing on both ends of the floor. He’s not the guy that just puts up 30 points and that’s it. He makes huge plays defensively. So, to me, he’s my MVP.”
Leonard is not short on offensive credentials. He is averaging 26.2 points per game, the most for any Spurs player since Hall of Famer David Robinson averaged 27.6 in his MVP season of 1994-95. With 39 points against the Rockets, he has cracked the 30-point barrier 23 times this season, the most for any Spur in a single season aside from Robinson and the legendary George Gervin.
Yet above it all, what puts Leonard in a class apart from Harden and Westbrook is his work as one of the NBA’s most dogged defenders, the shut-down force on the perimeter who is averaging two steals per game, while usually taking on the toughest defensive assignment each night.
“The block is what makes him special … I don’t know who goes to the other end and does what he does. Not that many people on a consistent basis, an entire game, game after game. Kawhi wanted it badly and he went and he took it.”
– Spurs coach Gregg Popovich
With the Rockets, as usual, trying to rely on the game-closing skills of their nuclear weapon Harden in the fourth quarter, it was Leonard, the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year, who insisted on seizing the challenge.
“Late in the game, we tried to give him a break, tried to switch off,” said Danny Green. “But he wouldn’t have it. So it was like, ‘OK, go guard him.'”
Leonard limited Harden to just a single field goal and four points in the final quarter that concluded with the swat heard ’round the AT&T Center.
“The block is what makes him special,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “Obviously, the 3. You know, Harden makes 3s, Kawhi makes 3s, this guy makes 3s, that guy makes 3s, Steph [Curry] makes 3s, everybody does that. But I don’t know who goes to the other end and does what he does. Not that many people on a consistent basis, an entire game, game after game. Kawhi wanted it badly and he went and he took it.
“We don’t talk about MVP awards. We don’t talk about any awards. We don’t talk about championships. We just play the game. Everybody tries to do what they can to make the team better and whatever records or awards or wins that come, that’s the way it is.”
It was the third straight game that Leonard has pulled the Spurs out of the fire at the finish, rescuing them by making virtually all of the clutch plays in back-to-back overtime wins against the Pelicans and Timberwolves.
His is a game that is expanding and rising like a hot air balloon on a cool morning. He was already named MVP of The Finals when the Spurs beat the Heat in 2014 and now, at 25, is still finding out more of what he’s capable of doing.
“I think it’s a combination of things,” said veteran Manu Ginobili. “He’s very confident now and you can see it. Before, he was more introverted and waiting for things to happen. Then, he started to realize the type of talent he has and how important he is for the team. And, he knows he’s going to have the ball. So, he’s even trusting more teammates, waiting a couple plays and knowing we’re going to play for him. That’s something your confidence gives you.
“So, he’s at that point he knows he owns the team; that we need him to do what he’s doing to win, or to have a chance; and that puts you in a great mental spot.”
Leonard’s breakout season has now drawn the Spurs to within two games of the front-running Warriors in the race for the overall best record in the league and home-court advantage in the playoffs. Put his defensive credentials together with a better offensive season than franchise icon and two-time MVP Tim Duncan ever produced.
Shouldn’t that put him in the conversation that for most of the season has revolved around Harden and Westbrook?
“No, not at all,” the taciturn Leonard said. “I don’t know how they pick or choose it. I’m just playing basketball.”
Better at both ends of the floor than anybody else in the league, if you still need it spelled out.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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