Leonard follows his path to title, MVP

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Kawhi Leonard’s Finals MVP performance

SAN ANTONIO — When the deal went down on Draft night 2011, when the San Antonio Spurs traded humble, team-oriented George Hill, a combo guard who for three seasons ingratiated himself to this team, to this city and most strikingly had found a soft spot in the heart of gruff coach Gregg Popovich, for a mostly unknown small forward with a funny name, all of San Antonio gasped.

Kawhi who?!

Even in the Spurs’ draft room, the decision to pull the trigger was hardly a unanimous, feel-good swap.

“It felt like we were going to get our ass chewed because we just traded the coach’s favorite player,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said on Saturday, reminiscing on the eve of Game 5.

Three years later, the folks in the Alamo City have popularized a different phrase for the player whose mannerisms, work ethic and determination fit this franchise like a glove.

Kawhi not?!

And on Sunday night inside the raucous AT&T Center, Kawhi Leonard, equally as humble as Hill and more reserved than even team patriarch Tim Duncan, forcefully answered that question with a third consecutive authoritative performance. He fatigued LeBron James with relentless defensive pressure and dominated in multiple ways on the offensive end.

Leonard’s 22 points and 10 rebounds led the Spurs to a 104-87 victory, a third straight blowout and the final one that ended the Heat’s two-year reign. It completed the Spurs’ season of redemption after last year’s heartache in South Beach and returned the Larry O’Brien Trophy to South Texas for the first time since 2007.

When Leonard stepped to the free-throw line in the first quarter, 18,581 fans instantly chanted “M-V-P! M-V-P!” A few hours later they would do it again, this time with even more conviction following confirmation that this quiet, corn-rowed, 22-year-old who had turned the tide of the NBA Finals in Game 3 was now its MVP.

“At the moment, I was just happy,” Leonard said. “Just had faith throughout the whole game, but I didn’t think at all I was about to win the MVP of the Finals.”

Heeding advice from his coach after sub-par efforts in Games 1 and 2 to be aggressive, to quit being concerned about deferring to the team’s elders, the 6-foot-7 Leonard closed out the final three games by averaging 23.6 points and 9.0 rebounds. He went 24-for-35 from the floor and 7-for-13 from beyond the arc. Defending the game’s best player, the reigning, two-time Finals MVP in James, Leonard had six steals and six blocks.

“He shows up the last three games and just plays out of his mind,” Duncan said. “He’s not worried about just doing the little things. He wants to do it all, and he plays with a confidence that is just amazing.”

When he was announced the MVP, his teammates mobbed him and pushed him playfully, and a smile even broke across Leonard’s normally stoic stone face. He grasped the trophy as his mother, Kim Robertson, hugged him and literally danced by his side.

That it was Father’s Day also resonated. Six years ago, Mark Leonard, Kawhi’s dad, was shot and killed at the car wash he owned in Compton, Calif. The case remains unsolved.

“It is a very special meaning for me knowing that he’s gone and I was able to win a championship on Father’s Day,” Leonard said.

The night after learning his father had been shot to death, Leonard played for his Riverside King High team, scoring 17 points in a loss. After it was over, according to the story in the Los Angeles Times, he broke down and cried in his mother’s arms.

“He loved his dad and they were really, really close,” his mother said, clutching the MVP trophy as she watched her son smiling through sit-down television interviews, the kind he typically hates to do because they force him to talk about himself. “I think from the moment that it happened, he wanted to make his dad proud, he wanted to take that as a rocket, keep on moving, moving. Because I was kind of scared. The thing is he is such a good kid, he always wanted to get better and better and better.”

Desperate to keep the series alive, Miami bolted to a 22-6 start, and James was going off, scoring 17 points in the opening quarter. But Leonard scored eight. He buried two 3-pointers and the Spurs closed to 29-22. Leonard nailed his third consecutive 3-point attempt with 4:47 to go in the second quarter. It put the Spurs ahead for the first time, 37-35. When the shot fell through, the roof practically blew off the arena and the party was officially on. San Antonio would never look back.

Leonard became the youngest Finals MVP since Duncan won it in 1999. He was also 22 at the time, and preferred to defer to veteran center and team captain David Robinson, who as usual, was in attendance Sunday to witness this latest title, Duncan’s fifth. Now here was Leonard, basking in the glory, but really no more than a willing pupil who had learned from these remarkably selfless players on this remarkable team, his own value system so much like theirs.

“I mean, look at Tim,” Kim Robertson said. “I think Tim has been a great role model for him, you know, a mentor for him. Tim is always, I always see him taking him to the side and telling him different things and I really think Kawhi respects that. Kawhi, his thing is he always wants to get better, better, better. He does not want to be in the limelight, he just wants to be good at what he loves to do, and that’s it.”

It sounds so familiar. While this Spurs era will always be known for the Big Three with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, it is Duncan who defines it, who followed Robinson as the face of the franchise, and who will one day pass along that mantle. Popovich has made no secret of it, even saying as much last season, that the quiet kid with the funny name is the next in line.

Spurs owner Peter Holt, wandering the floor and basking in the glow of another championship run, was asked if it’s too much burden to place on such a young player.

“Not so far,” Holt smiled. “He’s got pretty broad shoulders.”

As they say around here, Kawhi not?!


VIDEO: Kawhi Leonard addresses the media after his MVP performance

38 Comments

  1. Spurs long time fans says:

    He does look happy :D lol …hopefully Tim Duncan could be the role model KL can look up to, from attitude and leadership, also the persona Tim has that has become the value of the Spurs team. Like Parker said when you have a “superstar” in a team that so selfless and succeed you want to follow that too.

  2. Jesse says:

    Kawhi Leonard definitely deserves this title and he has earned his finals MVP.
    I think he did an amazing job on guarding Lebron and he made it hard for him to score.
    On the offensive end he was all over the place as well, knocking down 3 pointers, half distance and also going to the basket, he was really dominant offensively and we saw that by his scoring performance (20+ points for 3 consecutive games).

    I think Kawhi is going to be next go to guy in the spurs like Lebron is for the Heat right now.
    Amazing accomplishment for this young kid!

  3. Bird33 says:

    Congratulations Kawhi !!

    It’s great to see a humble old school type player (i.e. like all the Spurs) win this award in a League that seems to have more and more “look at me!! look at me!!” selfish arrogant players (like all the Heat players).

    Good guys don’t finish last. They finish first…if they play the game “the right way”. And the Spurs play the game “the right way” – a new record for FG% efficiency for the playoffs….what beautiful basketball to watch. Thank you!

    Congratulations Pop, Timmy, Manu, Tony, Kawhi and the entire Spurs organization – you guys rock!

    PS – To Pop – Red would be proud of how you won.

    All my best,

    A lifetime Celtics fan

  4. clips city says:

    Hey wat happens to LBJ & if he want to win a ring

  5. True Baller says:

    Code Name Snake Eyes. Doesn’t say a word just lets his skills relay the message.

  6. Dre says:

    Kawhi not? LOL

  7. moosemacknuckle says:

    Kawhi played defense the way Coach Fisher taught him to and the result was Finals MVP. GO Aztecs!

  8. moosemacknuckle says:

    Kawhi plays the defense Coach Fisher taught him. He deserves all the accolades and the title. Go AZTECS!

  9. lakerslakerslakers says:

    anybody hear how durant is hating on leonard? just goes to show u how the nba tries to stuff kd and paul george down our throats but leonard, that is a talent.

  10. Trevor McKesey says:

    The Spurs have such an amazing history since Tim Duncan came along and with all the sorted achievements, a back to back championship would really punctuate/emphasized their place where no team/coach has gone before. A foreigner (Belize) ridin’ with the Foreigners, the Spurs, that’s a bold stance in Laker (Los Angeles) country all these years.

  11. Uncle Daddy says:

    Kudos Kawhi! Get some rest, we’ll see you next season.

  12. BIG BONNICK says:

    Congratulations Spurs. As much as I would have loved to see Miami win their 3rd straight title, I am happy for Tim, Pop, and the gang. They have worked hard and really illustrated exactly what great teamwork, selflessness, and dedication look like.

    Also kudos to you Kawhi. What a way to get Finals MVP. You really put on a great show!!

  13. Des says:

    Man when Kawhi’s finally talking about his father on the Father’s Day and he sighed it nearly made my eyes water.

  14. rikbon says:

    For those who claim that the 6 of the Heat deserved the B.R. MVP Award, maybe you are right, but remember… nobody wins alone, Jordan had Paxson and Kerr doing the winning shots, last year was Allen that made the magic for the Heat.

    This year LeBron tried to play by himself… and we saw how it went.
    The other 2 big 3 were nearly useless, Chalmers too many downs and too little ups.

  15. James#1FAN says:

    VERY HUMBLE GUY!!!
    LeBron is my fave player but they did ball out the heat. And Kawhi do deserve what he got. congrats

  16. Sam says:

    Speaking as a Warriors fan, congratulations to the Spurs. They proved that good guys don’t always finish last.

  17. TMac says:

    I just want to come up on here and Congratulate the SA Spurs. They earned that championship hands down. Nothing but the upmost respect for that team.

  18. Steveplays says:

    Nba90, that’s where you made your first mistake. Only looking at stats does not show how good a player is ( Look at Noah ) Lebron is the main part of the heat offense whil the Spurs work as a team. So of course Lebron will have great stats. But Leonard managed to stand out during the finals for the Spurs so he deserves MVP, even more than Parker or Duncan.

  19. NBA90 says:

    Lebron deserves it more ,Leonard stats look poor compared to James

  20. Raul says:

    As a Heat fan I must tip my hat to the Spurs. They were the best team all year and best team in the playoffs. I wish the finals would have been more competitive, but again the Spurs played a great series. As for Leonard I am glad Indiana traded him to the Spurs. The Pacers are a bunch of little girls and don’t deserve someone with the talent of Leonard on their team. Sorry for George Hill he sure got the short stick on that deal.

  21. Jaamnoo says:

    Lebron should have won the title.

    • lebron should have lost says:

      Really…lebron? The guy who had to team up with 2 of his buddies to get a ring…great joke by the way.

  22. stevetallent says:

    Jeff, good article, nice setup. It worked really well. Good job.

  23. leborn jaems says:

    wow my team is so bad.. time to make another decision.. but first, gotta talk to melo..

  24. FinalsMVP says:

    Kawhi Leonard was incredible the way he turned it up after two mediocre/invisble games and he deserves to be the Spurs FinalsMVP. (Could also have gone to Timmy, Tony and even to Boris Diaw due plus/minus stats) However the MVP of the series was LeBron James who carried the Heat all by himself. Should have won it just like the Jerry West did in ’69 in a losing effort with 31/7.5/4. LeBron had 28/8/4 with 57% FG% and 52% 3P%. Outrageous seeing that he was defended by the best defender (KL) and team defense concentrated on him as the predominant scoring threat! (I’m saying this as a Spurs fan)

  25. jumppong says:

    Congrats Kawhi and to all spurs nation. you deserve it. Spurs team is a great example to all the kids out there. trusting one another helping each other and always HUMBLE. compare to heat. where some of kids have a tattoo of birdman lol

  26. Marco29 says:

    Well deserved for Kawhi who really fits in the Spurs philosophy.
    Another great move in a long history of great moves by Spurs front office (drafting Parker at the end of the first round, Manu in the second round, signing Diaw and scouting Splitter in Eurolague).

  27. Spurs Fan says:

    Kawhi does the worst interviews, cracks me up, but I love him and the spurs.

  28. Another Heat Fan says:

    Much deserved. Way to make up for that free-throw.

  29. Patrick says:

    Getting a player like Kawhi Leonard, in the draft, was brillant. I think he was mostly off the radar for other teams and that is the brillance of the Spurs stafff; They know how to go out and snag raw talent. Another case in point, Ginobilli and Parker and the list goes on and on…

  30. amitpal says:

    Really happy for Leonard. Much deserved for the entire team for all the hard work they have put in.

  31. JD says:

    maybe it’s just me but i think Timmy still deserve the award ‘coz he average double double in the series… that did you see that he’s the only one who didn’t celebrate when Kawhi’s name was called…. :-)

    • spursfan says:

      you clearly did not watch the awarding….

    • stevetallent says:

      I must have been watching something different. I thought that Tim looked really happy and was one of the main culprits teasing him. I even remarked to my wife how to a man, they were so happy that Kawhi got the award. Timmy might have deserved it, but there was no clear cut winner this year. In 2005 you could easily have given it to Manu. In 2007 it could have been Tim again. Tim is so consistent. But the big trophy and the ring is the hardware that Tim wanted to have again.

      • Richard Mills says:

        Timmy did not want it and neither to a man they wanted it to go to Kawhi! You need to watch it again!

    • Migo says:

      Agree to dissagree….Tim is the greatest PF in the legue and possibly in history but the MVP is for the player that caused the most impact overall, like offensively defensively….ect Timmy did great numbers for his age but KL edged him out….remember “99 Robinson could’ve deserved the MVP however Duncan made the most impact in the series…

    • Dre says:

      Timmy reminds of him self years ago, he 22-year-old in that time, just like kawhi