When it came time on Tuesday to choose his wardrobe before he left for work, Meyers Leonard selected a shirt that he felt was appropriate for the night ahead.
The Trail Blazers were going against the best big man in the game, DeMarcus Cousins, and a surging Sacramento Kings team. At stake was the bragging rights to the eighth spot in the Western Conference.
Leonard knew Cousins, in particular, would be a beast. He had bumped, bullied and bulldozed his last two opponents while scoring 48 against Indiana and 56 against Charlotte, and the last time the Blazers faced him in Sacramento, Leonard drew long stretches defending him.
So it was with some significance that Leonard reached for a long-sleeved navy blue shirt Tuesday, adorned with “Muhammad Ali” across the chest.
“We as a team needed to fight,’’ Leonard explained later. “So I chose Muhammad Ali. Didn’t know it would turn into this, though.’’
The this Leonard referred to was perhaps his most meaningful and impactful performance of the season: a 25-minute sparring session during which Leonard went toe-to-toe with Cousins, frustrating the star and inspiring Leonard’s teammates.
“It was him manning up,’’ Damian Lillard said. “He chose to man up and take the challenge.’’
In the end, the Trail Blazers routed Sacramento 112-97 thanks in large part to one of Cousins’ worst nights of the season: 4-for-21 from the field, 17 points and five rebounds.
Mason Plumlee used his athleticism against Cousins. Noah Vonleh his quickness. And Ed Davis his length.
But it was what Leonard brought to the fight that opened eyes and drew the most talk afterward: He was tough. He held his ground inside. He battled. Never mind that he hit 3-of-5 three pointers, Leonard DEFENDED!
“I just think he really made a statement tonight with how he played,’’ Plumlee said of Leonard. “If he plays like that all the time we are going to be a really good team.’’
So what in the name of Maurice Lucas got into Leonard on Tuesday?
Turns out, it all might have started in that closet at home.
“I think it was just a focus of mind,’’ Leonard said. “Often times I understand that my job is spacing, being on the perimeter for the most part, guarding guys on the perimeter. But when I’m called on to take on another task, another role, I think I really took pride in that.’’
It wasn’t just the people inside the locker room who noticed. The common criticism with Leonard – at least within the fanbase -- is his defense and his toughness.
“It’s funny, my best friend (Brady Welsh) texted me and said ‘Man, you have to do that every night; You should try to be an absolute animal regardless of who you are playing,’ ’’ Leonard said. “To his credit, he is absolutely right. I have to know that being physical and being a bigger presence … is something I can do and something I can help the team with.’’
Plumlee noted that much of the criticism of Leonard being soft, or not wanting to defend inside, is unfair.
“I think naturally if you are a stretch big, people are quick to say that,’’ Plumlee said. “But you know, Meyers is a physical player, and he accepted the matchup tonight and really did a great job. He didn’t do a good job, he did a great job. He showed tonight, he doesn’t back down from anybody.’’
Indeed, at one point Cousins became so frustrated he feigned a punch at Leonard after Leonard blocked a shot out of bounds. It was called a foul, but as Cousins took a step toward Leonard with his fist clenched and cocked, Leonard didn’t waver.
“Well, I just stood my ground,’’ Leonard said matter-of-factly. “It’s my job to hold my ground and something I know with the coaches and the rest of the guys that I gained some respect by showing I’m willing to be scrappy and stand up for myself.’’
Afterward, Cousins wasn’t in the mood to acknowledge Leonard played any part in his off night. Heck, he wasn’t even willing to acknowledge he knew Leonard’s name.
“I could tell what their scheme was: try and frustrate me and get under my skin,’’ Cousins said. “M … Miles .. Meyers … however you say it … Leonard took advantage of the situation a little more, so if you want to credit them go ahead. But I’m not giving him that much credit. He’s not even a defender.’’
There’s some truth to Cousins’ assertions, and Leonard knows it. He hasn’t been a consistent defender in his first three years, but there was hope he was improving after encouraging shifts guarding Memphis All-Star Marc Gasol in last season’s playoffs.
This season he has often been out of position, easily enticed off his feet and quick to foul. Tuesday, he wasn’t burned by head fakes, used his 7-foot-1 length and the brawn that has come with a religious weight room regiment to be a defensive factor.
He wasn’t ready to proclaim himself cured, or a finished product, but he said hopefully this is the first step in what will become a consistent body of work.
“I definitely think this a good moment, or time, that I can look back and say ‘This is how I have to be. This is what I know I can do,’ ‘’ Leonard said.
If that physical nature and defensive mindset become more commonplace, the Blazers’ playoff flirtation could evolve into something serious.
“I told him: ‘That’s what it has to be,’’’ Lillard said. “I’m taking Meyers seven days out of the week being that physical, over him being passive. I’d rather him go in there aggressive and welcome that challenge instead of him getting bullied. That was a huge part of why we were able to get it done.’’