MIAMI — The “easiest target in sports” has been anything but for San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard through two games of these NBA Finals.
Even before cramps snatched him from the picture in Game 1, Leonard had his hands full dealing with Miami Heat star LeBron James. If the Spurs are going to have any chance of stealing Game 3 tonight at AmericanAirlines Arena, they need a little more, as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has been known to call it, “nasty” from the soft-spoken Leonard.
Leonard has just four rebounds through two games and hasn’t been able to slow James down much. Plus, Leonard fouled out of a game for the first time in his career in the Spurs’ Game 2 loss. Basically, he’s been a shell of the aggressive and physical player we all saw before The Finals (prompting many of us to tab him as the X-factor going into this series).
Popovich said he hasn’t had to do or say anything extra to motivate Leonard, whose play throughout the playoffs was one of the most noticeable differences between this Spurs team and last year’s version — particularly in the Western Conference finals against Oklahoma City.
But he has noticed a change in The Finals when LeBron became the primary assignment.
“The only thing is he sometimes has a tendency when he does foul to back off, because he doesn’t want to foul again and wants to do the right thing,” Popovich said. “Almost like too nice a guy, so to speak, instead of just keep playing. He’s a young kid and he’s learning that.”
Manu Ginobili said he hasn’t offered up any extra advice, not with Pop and Tim Duncan already in Leonard’s ear about his play and guarding LeBron. Ginobili didn’t feel the need to point out the obvious.
“I think he’s a tough kid, a great competitor, Pop has already been talking to him a lot,” he said, “so I don’t think that it’s good when somebody gets talked to by everybody all the time. He knows what to do. Pop has been doing a great job with him, and if Tim helps, too, it’s enough.
“We don’t have to be all over him. He’s had just a couple of okay games, I don’t think it was terrible, just okay games. He missed a few shots, got in foul trouble early and that can mess up your minutes and typical playing time. But I think he’ll be fine.”