- Series hub: Spurs vs. Heat
MIAMI – Kawhi Leonard‘s close-up moments — a championship series of them actually, at least four and as many as seven — are ready for him, whether he’s ready for them or not.
Leonard, the San Antonio Spurs’ second-year forward, won’t turn 22 for another three weeks. But he’ll grow up as an NBA player before a global audience’s eyes during the 2013 Finals. Leonard is the Spurs defender charged with being the first point of resistance against the best basketball player in the world, Miami Heat star and four-time MVP LeBron James.
Young Leonard, meet locomotive.
“I think he’ll be fine,” said San Antonio’s Danny Green after their team’s morning shootaround session Thursday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
“He’s a fearless player,” Green said. “He doesn’t get rattled or scared easily. And he just plays basketball. It’s just a basketball game.”
And James is “just” a basketball player, right? Nobody on either side is saying that.
They know that the threat James poses to 29 NBA defenses doesn’t fall on one man. It requires group effort, rotations, double-teams, different looks and, invariably, second and third matchup options when a primary defender finds himself in foul trouble.
But someone gets the first turn in the tank and that guy, night after night through these Finals, figures to be Leonard.
“He’s just reliable,” Manu Ginobili said of his younger teammate. “Very athletic and long. He’s not 6-10 of course, but his wingspan is huge. And great hands, quick hands. So basically he’s our only player who can really match up in some solo way with him. There are not many in the league who can match up with him.”
There isn’t much track record to go on. Leonard was hurt and did not play in the regular-season meeting in Miami, and neither James nor Dywane Wade played when the Heat visited San Antonio in March. In Leonard’s rookie season, the teams met just once in the post-lockout schedule.
James, averaging 26.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 6.4 apg while shooting 51.4 percent in the postseason, just wrapped up a series against another earnest, developing defender in Indiana’s Paul George. The Spurs likely will give Leonard more help than the Pacers gave George, though that team did adjust with extra defenders as the series ground on.
Leonard didn’t shy away from the assignment when talking with reporters Wednesday.
“I would rather guard the best guy on the floor,” he said. “I want to get better myself. Guarding him is only going to make me a better player. I accept the challenge to go out there and play.”
Said Ginobili of Leonard: “He doesn’t say much. He’s not playing around or making jokes. He’s just a serious kid and hard worker. He loves the game, but he’s quiet, an introvert. But he does a great job.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich doesn’t expect the heightened attention on The Finals to affect Leonard. “I think he’ll be fine,” Popovich said. “The whole playoffs are a big stage. And he’s kind of like Tim [Duncan] — he doesn’t seem to get rattled, he doesn’t talk much. He just goes and plays the game.”
Leonard, 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, will try to make James (assuming he guards the Spurs forward) work defensively to drain a little energy from him, at least. In 14 playoff games, Leonard is averaging 13.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg and shooting 56.5 percent.
He undoubtedly will get some tips and insights from older, more experience Spurs. But that can only help so much.
“Talk is cheap in these situations,” Popovich said. “I think guys just have to experience it and play. Everybody’s different — some guys will handle it well and some other guys might not. You don’t know who those people are. You don’t know what will make them feel comfortable or not.
“But just in preparation, we try to use a little bit of humor so they realize, it is still basketball. The same things win and lose, and when it’s over, life will go on.”