Posts Tagged ‘Larry O’Brien’

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

Subtracting Harden Adds Up For OKC

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HOUSTON – Comfortable in a new city and a new role as top gun of the Rockets’ offense, James Harden seems on his way to his first appearance amid the glitz and glamor of the NBA All-Star Game.

Of course, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have already been there, done that, more than once, and will likely return to the Toyota Center for another go-around on Feb. 17. But really they have their sights set only on another shiny object — the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

And the seemingly counterintuitive truth is the Thunder might actually be closer to achieving that goal without their former running mate.

In other words: No Harden, no problem.

That is not in any way to diminish the skill and work ethic of Harden, who has been everything the Rockets hoped for and more. He can weave through traffic, find his way to the basket and draw fouls almost in his sleep. He pull up and stab in a 3-point dagger from almost any place over the half-court line. He has been the confident, veteran force who has been able to lift the Rockets onto his shoulders and carry them through fourth quarters as a foundation to build upon while they continue to shape a young supporting cast.

Yet Harden’s departure just might enable the Thunder to become even better and take the last step to winning a title.

For one, there is no underestimating the ease with which his replacement Kevin Martin has slid into Harden’s old spot. He can move without the ball, can score efficiently by drawing a high rate of fouls and is, in fact, even a better spot-up shooter in the Thunder offense.

“To be able to find the open spots in the defense, take a pass and just knock it down is very important to the way we want to play,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “I was familiar with some of Kevin Martin’s game and knew he was a scorer, but I didn’t really know he was a spot-up guy until he came here. It’s been a significant addition to our team.”

Perhaps more significant, the departure of Harden has forced Durant to take on more of an all-around role in the OKC offense. While his scoring is down slightly this season, his assists and his assist/turnover ratio has improved. It seems he is becoming even more effective as a facilitator, drawing defenses to him and finding his open teammates.

There are still going to be those nights when Durant can and will fill up the bucket for 40 or 50. But without Harden to come off the bench and provide an offensive burst of his own, Durant been much more effective in getting the rest of his teammates — Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison and Martin — more involved on a more consistent basis. By subtracting Harden from the equation, Durant has had to become a more well-rounded player, even more of a leader, and the Thunder have gone from a three-headed monster to overall better team and

In two games against his former team, Harden has shot just 9-for-33 (27.2 percent) while averaging 21 points.

“James was really good for us,” said Brooks. “He’s a terrific player. He’s an All-Star player. He’s definitely at that level, and he’s going to be that way for many, many, many years. He still has improvement to make in his game and he’s really good now. But we never looked at it that way. We looked at it as whoever we have we’re going to get better with them and move forward.”

No Harden, no problem.

Heat Still Stuck In Twilight Of Zone

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HANG TIME TEXAS – You’d think that one thing the Heat would have figured out over the extended off-season is how to play against a zone defense.

After all, wasn’t that what the Mavericks used to twist Miami’s star-studded lineup into pretzel knots and change the entire series last June in The Finals?

But here we are, one game into the New Year of 2012 – the Final Year, if your calendar was made by Mayans – and Heat looked like they’re right back to square one, taking their first loss of the season against the Hawks, according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com:

Right now, the Heat have a problem with zone defense and the whole league is about to realize it.

The Dallas Mavericks used it effectively in the Finals against them last June, though the champs seemed to forget that strategy in the Christmas Day opener. But the Boston Celtics, a team that virtually never goes to zone, nearly pulled off a second-half comeback last week using it until they were upended by an unexpected shooting performance by Heat rookie Norris Cole.

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Magic-al Message In L.A.?

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – A little bird thinks it’s time the Lakers stopped kidding themselves and made a run at Dwight Howard if they’re going to jump right back into the business of collecting Larry O’Brien trophies.

Tweet, tweet.

Well, a big bird actually. One with five championship rings.

In the aftermath of the Mavericks’ Finals win over the Heat, Hall of Famer Magic Johnson tweeted: “Lakers should think about calling the Orlando Magic.”

It should be noted that @MagicJohnson quickly deleted the tweet, but the message was delivered by the living legend and Lakers’ ambassador, even if he sold his ownership slice and is no longer officially connected with the team.

We’ll call the episode: “Magic & Magic” or “Making Dwight Disappear.”

After all, for what other reason would Johnson suggest the Lakers place a phone call to central Florida – Disney World tickets or to enroll in the Stan Van Gundy Charm School?

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Mavs Way Never Goes Out Of Style

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – That’s the thing about shortcuts.

Sometimes they can get you to the destination faster. Other times they can drop you off the freeway ramp into the wrong kind of neighborhood.

The Mavericks are celebrating the first NBA championship in franchise history because they stuck with perseverance over panic, prudence over haste.

No one in the free agent class of 2010 – LeBron James included – had more reason to fly the coop than Dirk Nowitzki. Not after all the years, all the frustration, all the derision that had been heaped upon him.

James and Chris Bosh bolted to beaches of Miami. Carlos Boozer headed off to the Windy City. Amar’e Stoudemire fled to the bright lights of New York.

Yet Nowitzki never really considered setting one foot outside of Dallas.

Longevity and loyalty, it turns out, are a difficult combination to beat.

So, too, it turns out, is the process of building a champion brick by brick.

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Greatness: Is a ring the thing?

Admittedly it’s a fun topic, if for no reason than to poke a stick at our big cuddly bear of a buddy Charles Barkley and listen to him growl.

In fact, of all the great comedy routines ever done on TNT over the years, my favorite has always been Kenny Smith manning the velvet rope outside the “Champions Club” and laughingly taunting the well-known partier Sir Charles about his lack of credentials to get inside the door.

Occasionally, Smith would push open the door to let the sounds of dance music come and poke his head inside.

“Hey, Charles!” he would call out. “Look, it’s Mark Madsen! And Zan Tabak! Oh, Charles, look! It’s Jack Haley! Can you believe it? Jack Haley!”

It was a fantastic skit and all Barkley could do was shake his head and laugh, because, of course, after 16 often-mind-blowing seasons, he left the NBA ringless.

So here we are just hours from the start of the 2011 NBA Finals that feature LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki as unfulfilled stars, pondering again the question for the ages: Does greatness require a ring?

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Blogtable: Are Magic for real?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.

Are you a believer in the Magic yet? Meaning, are they championship material? Why or why not?

Steve Aschburner: I probably won’t be a believer in Magic right up to the point where Commissioner David Stern is handing Stan Van Gundy and Dwight Howard the Larry O’Brien trophy someday. It’s a bias I have against that 3-ball-heavy style of theirs and, irrationally enough, it lingers even though the two players I least trusted – Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis – are gone. Turns out Gilbert Arenas accounts for enough distrust for two. Now, if Marcus Camby is standing alongside Howard once the trading deadline passes … well, I’ll still be a skeptic until it all comes together.

Fran Blinebury: Things have come together quicker than I thought, but it could still be a problem in the playoffs due to a lack of size behind Dwight Howard.  Can they really get away with simply extended minutes from Brandon Bass?  The good news, of course, is that Miami lacks size as well. But those hulking Celtics could be a problem. (more…)