MIAMI – Kawhi Leonard, the presumptive future of the San Antonio Spurs, was sorely needed in the present, lest these 2014 Finals slip too quickly into his and the Spurs’ past.
So the future was now in Game 3 against the Miami Heat, Leonard scoring a career-high 29 points and shadowing LeBron James into the sort of mere-mortal game San Antonio will need if it hopes to do this year what it couldn’t do last.
Leonard was jerked out of his foul-plagued funk in the two games in San Antonio by some pep talks and tough love from the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan as if he was, oh, Roy Hibbert. And he responded, mostly by ignoring the circumstances of these games and playing as if this were January.
Offensively, Leonard attacked Miami from the start, hitting all five of his shots in the first quarter and scoring 16 of the Spurs’ 41 points that period. Defensively the 6-foot-7 forward with the pterodactyl wingspan and Wolverine hands helped limit James to 22 points, just eight over the final three quarters when San Antonio’s fat lead cried out for something special after halftime.
Leonard had been outscored 60-18 by James in Games 1 and 2 combined, but he had the edge this time by seven. By relaxing, by seizing the moment while forgetting how momentous it was, Leonard sparked the Spurs to a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series and stuck Miami with its first home loss of the postseason (8-1).
“That’s how he’s played all year long,” Popovich said. “He’s got to be one of our better players on the court or we’re not good enough. That’s just the way it is.
“You know, it’s the NBA Finals. You can’t just be mediocre out there if you want to win a game, and everybody’s got to play well, and he did that.”
San Antonio wouldn’t be here now without Leonard, who took a strong next step in his third season. His value has risen each year, so much so that without Leonard in 2013-14 – he missed 14 games with a broken hand, one after a dental procedure and one to rest – the Spurs were an ordinary 8-8. With him? Try 54-12.
Leonard’s still just 22 (his birthday is June 29) and it’s fine for Popovich to weave him into a punchline, as he did after the forward’s 17-point, 11-rebound performance in the Game 6 clincher against Oklahoma City. “He’s the future of the Spurs,” the coach said, “partially because everyone else is older than dirt.”
But there could be no waiting around for Leonard in this series, no leaving it to the team’s past/present of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Much like Rajon Rondo forced his way into Boston’s Pierce-Garnett-Allen Big 3 a few years back, Leonard’s learning curve is ascending faster than the Spurs old guys’ is descending. He’s integral to what they do now, indispensable on nights they don’t.
So for Leonard to score nine points in the opener, nine more in Game 2 and get on the floor for only 55 minutes total due to early fouls one night and a disqualifying six the next, that wasn’t going to get it done for the Spurs no matter what sort of throwback games his elderly teammates mustered.
“He wasn’t down. I wouldn’t call it struggling either,” forward Boris Diaw said. “The fouls, especially in the first game, quick fouls early, didn’t let him be as aggressive as he is … and defense gives him some adrenaline for offense.”
Popovich acknowledged that he and others within the team had talked with Leonard in the two off-days before Game 3, though he declined to share. “Family business,” the Spurs coach called it.
Though the specifics were cloaked, the message seemed obvious.
“We just wanted him to be who he’s been the whole year, in the regular season and in the playoffs,” Popovich said. He said Leonard “overreacted” to the fouls called against him and “became very cautious.” “And he doesn’t play like that,” the coach added.
Said Duncan: “We’ve been on him about continuing to play.”
Leonard’s defense has gained traction swiftly through three seasons – he and James butted heads in last year’s Finals, with the Miami star shooting just 44 percent when they were on the court together. This season, the native of Riverside, Calif., earned a spot on the NBA’s all-defensive second team. The Spurs still rely on gang tactics but Leonard set career highs by averaging 6.2 rebounds, 1.73 steals and 0.76 blocks. His steals were the most by a Spurs player since Ginobili averaged 1.77 a decade ago.
James’ stats were modest for him – except for his seven turnovers, one of which came via a Leonard steal. “I was in a pretty good rhythm,” the Heat star said. “I just turned the ball over way too much.”
Leonard knew he had underperformed and, in his understated, man-of-few-words way at Tuesday’s shootaround had hinted he would give a better showing.
“Yeah, for Game 3,” Leonard said at the end of the night. “But the series is not over yet.”
Don’t let him shrug off the moment. Said Miami’s Ray Allen: “He attacked us.”
Leonard’s 29 points weren’t just his NBA career high – they apparently were the most he’d scored since high school. He had 26 for San Diego State as a freshman in a game at Wyoming, Yahoo! Sports’ Marc Spears reported, and 26 in an April game against Memphis this season. He’s the first player to set his personal scoring high in a Finals game since the Nets’ Kenyon Martin went for 35 in Game 4 against the Lakers in 2002.
Leonard scored 20 points or more only three times in the 2013-14 regular season but he did it twice more in the West semifinals against Portland. He had five games among his 66 this season in which he led San Antonio in scoring, but he has done it three times now in the 21 playoff games.
No longer a bonus, his offense now ranks as a Spurs need.
“He has many ways of scoring,” Ginobili said. “His handles are good. We don’t give him the ball to play a pick-and-roll, but he can do it. … He has a great 3-point shot, everybody saw it. His percentages during the season were great. He can post up, [he has] mid-range game.
“So he’s young and he’s on a team where it’s not we go at him every time. So he does have great potential but it’s going to depend on him, as always, of not being too satisfied with what he’s doing now, working at it and develop.”
Leonard has been developing for three years, his rookie season cut short by the 2010 lockout. Duncan got his first glimpses of him then, when Leonard showed up and worked out in San Antonio while waiting for the games.
Duncan wasn’t impressed.
“I thought he had a lot of work to do,” Duncan said. “He wasn’t shooting the ball like he does now. But Pop and the guys saw something in him and they allowed him to kind of develop and find his own way.
“Last year I thought he really got his confidence and understood what he had to do, and he continues to evolve year after year. This year, you can see when he gets in a groove like that, he can be special.”
Never mind the “can be” stuff. San Antonio needs Leonard strictly in the present tense.