Kawhi Leonard’s continued evolution shapes Spurs’ present and future
Kawhi Leonard, a white towel and gray shirt wrapped around his neck, stared down without making eye contact.
“I couldn’t be more proud of you,” Gregg Popovich told him. “You made some shots, and you played good D. But you competed – 50/50 balls, being active, the whole deal.”
Leonard might detest the spotlight – even a one-on-one moment with his coach during Game 4 seemed like too much attention for him – but he can’t escape it.
For the second straight game, Leonard was the Spurs’ best player. In San Antonio’s 107-86 Game 4 win over the Heat on Thursday, he scored 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds – another NBA Finals double-double for the 22-year-old.
Leonard now has five of the nine youngest double-doubles in the NBA Finals since 1985 with Kobe Bryant and LeBron James taking the rest. Pretty elite company.
Does Leonard belong?
He scored 29 points in Game 3, his highest-scoring game since high school, and defended relatively well. He looked like Paul George.
But, unlike Popovich, most observers didn’t believe.
They said it was a fluke. They said Miami hadn’t prepared for him. They said the San Antonio’s better players got him open.
“I’m just a ballplayer,” he said.
Leonard is a quiet presence who fits perfectly with the Spurs. Even when leading San Antonio in scoring in back-to-back games, he deflects publicity.
Why didn't Kawhi Leonard make an appearance on the interview podium after last night's game? He begged off.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) June 11, 2014
Spurs p.r. man Tom James: "Kawhi, you want to go to the podium?" Leonard: "No." TJ: "Kawhi, PLEASE go to the podium!"— Chris Mannix (@SIChrisMannix) June 13, 2014
Unlike his scoring outburst in Game 3, Leonard showed his more-typical all-around game Thursday. Few in the NBA can match him across all four levels of the floor – inside and outside, offensively and defensively.
Leonard can make a spot-up 3-pointer over LeBron on one possession and do this on another. Only LeBron, George and Kevin Durant top Leonard in games this postseason with both a 3-pointer and dunk (nine).
On the other end, Leonard got three steals and blocked three shots. Miami shot just 39 percent and turned the ball over 11 times with him on the court.
In all facets, Leonard made his presence felt.
“He’s going to be unbelievable,” Tim Duncan said
Leonard’s overall stat line – 20 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, three steals, three blocks – is unmatched in the calendar year.
Last time someone did it in the playoffs? Duncan in 2008.
Last time someone did it in the Finals? Duncan in 2003.
At some point, Duncan will retire, and the Spurs could become Leonard’s. He’s not yet good enough to carry a team, but he might never need to fill that role. Leonard is so versatile, he’ll give Popovich and R.C. Buford plenty of flexibility for assembling a team around him.
For now, Leonard is happily excelling in his current position – one game from his first championship. I have a feeling Leonard is in store for many firsts in the coming years, though craving attention probably won’t be one of them.