When San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich unleashed Kawhi Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals turned into a one-sided contest.
Leonard looked like a different player after a disappointing Game 2. He scored a playoff-career high 29 points in Game 3 and followed that up with a 20-point, 14-rebound effort in Game 4. The Spurs won both games in Miami to put a stranglehold on the series, and completed the demolition of the two-time champion Heat with a 104-87 win in Game 5 to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for a fifth time in franchise history.
Once Leonard — who scored 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the series clincher — became a bigger part of the Spurs’ offense, the Heat had no response. A team can only game plan for so many players, and the Spurs already have three of the best in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. When Leonard got cooking, the Heat were toast.
“He’s very efficient,” LeBron James said of Leonard, who guarded him for most of the series.
“First two games he didn’t play so well,” James said. “I thought he attacked more in the last three games. He shot the ball extremely well. Every year he gained more and more confidence.”
LeBron posted LeBron-type numbers during The Finals, but he had to work for every basket thanks to Leonard’s defense. Anyone who didn’t vote for Leonard on the all-NBA first-team defense should have their credentials revoked. This young man is one of the five best one-on-one defenders in the league, and he should be on the all-defense team for the rest of his career. Mark it down.
“Just coming into the series I just focusing in on guarding LeBron. But I got in foul trouble. I just got aggressive in Game 3 and got in a rhythm,” said the third-year pro, who just keeps getting better and better each time he steps on the court.
He definitely got better and better with each Finals game. He shot the ball well over 60 percent from the field and averaged 23 points in the last three games.
“It’s just a good progression for me,” Leonard said. “I just believe in all the hard work that I put in.”
Whatever Popovich told Kawhi after Game 2, it worked.
“We have conversations throughout the year. Mostly one way because Kawhi is a quiet young man. But he listens and he’s a great learner. And he’s super competitive. He has the drive to be the best. He walks the walk,” Popovich said of his 22-year-old budding star, who started his career as a post-up forward in college and turned himself into a solid wing player in the NBA.
“He’s there early, he’s there late. He wants me and the coaches to push him,” Popovich said. “I just talked to him about not being in that defer sort of stage. The hell with Tony. The hell with Timmy. The hell with Manu. You play the game. You are the man. You’re part of the engine that makes us go. And it starts with his defense and his rebounding. I haven’t called a play for him the whole playoffs. I do not call his number. Everything he did was out of emotion.
“In the future, obviously we’ll use him a lot more on an individual basis. But it’s not really our style, and he appreciates that.”
Leonard shows very little emotion on the court, which makes him a perfect fit in San Antonio. You’ll never hear him complain about not getting enough touches and he always compliments his teammates and coaches. But don’t let the soft tone and California cool demeanor fool you. He’s a quiet assassin.
When the Spurs traded for Leonard in the 2011 draft, giving up then promising guard George Hill, some questioned the move. But Popovich and RC Buford knew what they were getting in Leonard. They got a Bruce Bowen-type perimeter defender who also has the potential to be a very good offensive player.
Leonard is the only Finals MVP who hasn’t made an All-Star team. That should change after what he did in this year’s playoffs.
“He just played free. You could tell [after Game 2] his teammates came up to him and told him, ‘Just play basketball.’ And he not only took what the defense gave him he took what he wanted at times as well,” Dwyane Wade said.
“He’s a young player who is growing up in this league,” Wade said. “Everyone knows what Pop says that he’s the future of this team.”
Joel Huerto is editor and publisher of OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.