It's an impossible task: guarding LeBron James in your first NBA Finals game before a worldwide television audience. That's right, guarding LeBron James.
That would terrify a veteran All-Star, much less a second-year player. But judging by the way mild-mannered Kawhi Leonard defended James and battled during a 92-88 Spurs victory in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night, it wasn't hard to see that it really was just another game to him.
"I don't think nothing of it," Leonard said of the matchup. "I'm playing basketball out here. He's the best player, but you just got to compete every possession with him."
The Spurs do not take lightly the challenge of slowing James, who's widely regarded as the world's best player. The league MVP entered the Finals averaging 26.2 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 1.5 steals.
"[Leonard] made him work," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "Nobody is going to stop LeBron James for all the reasons that we all know, but to try to make him work and maybe deny a catch here and there is important. Kawhi did the best job he could."
The 6-7 Leonard acknowledged that guarding James was a "lot of pressure" but said he didn't talk to any veterans about defending the nine-time All-Star, who is listed as 6-8 and outweighs the former San Diego State standout by 25 pounds.
"It's just a basketball game and I've been defending the best players throughout the whole year on the other teams," Leonard said. "I'm just out there playing."
Yes, James did finish with 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists, but Leonard, with the help of occasional double-teams, didn't make things easy for James, who was held eight points below his scoring average, missed four of five 3-pointers and had two turnovers. James also attempted just four free throws in Game 1 after averaging 8.5 in his previous 16 playoff games.
Still, Leonard was far from satisfied and plans to be even more aggressive in Game 2 on Sunday.
"I just tried to stay close to him and contest all his shots," Leonard said. "Not allow him to get easy baskets or easy looks to shoot the ball."
Leonard added 10 points and 10 rebounds, and perhaps caused James to work a little, too.
James said he needed a breather at the start of the fourth quarter in part because of fatigue caused by closing out on Leonard's jump shots. That fatigue certainly didn't help James' offense either.
"I missed some shots. I missed some really good looks," James said.
Leonard's biggest play on James came during a fourth-quarter stretch that changed the momentum firmly for San Antonio.
First, Leonard scored a layup to give the Spurs a 79-78 lead with seven minutes left – their first advantage since 19-18. As James followed by attempting a pass, Leonard snatched it away with 6:06 left, using his 7-foot-3 wingspan. Leonard then passed the ball to Tony Parker, whose layup gave the Spurs an 81-78 lead with six minutes remaining. San Antonio never trailed again.
"It was just instinct, playing the game, just focused on wanting to win the game," said Leonard of the steal.
Leonard's overall play on this stage is impressive, considering that nearly two years ago he was the 15th overall selection in the 2011 NBA draft. Notable players selected before Leonard included Derrick Williams, Tristan Thompson, Jan Vesely, Bismack Biyombo and the Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus.
The Spurs thought so much of Leonard that they traded veteran guard George Hill to the Indiana Pacers for him on draft night.
"We thought he'd be a good fit as a player, as a person and as a position," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said. "We gave up one of our real brothers to make it happen."
The Spurs are known for their low-key style, which is why Leonard, 21, is an ideal fit.
Leonard rarely speaks to the press, and the Spurs do their best to protect him from uncomfortable media situations. Leonard's agent, Brian Elfus, said he was worried about how Leonard would handle the Finals' media crush. While Leonard calmly pushed away a microphone that got too close to his face after Game 1, he seems to be handling all the media attention in stride – just as he did in his Finals debut against James.
"He doesn't like the limelight," Elfus said. "That's why San Antonio is perfect for him. I asked the other day how [Finals] media day went for him. He said, 'Oh, it went really good. It was like a media zoo and circus, but it was fine.' I think he is getting used to it and getting better with microphones in front of him. It's kind of an evolution with him. It's going to take time."
NBA Finals coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• Watch: Tony Parker seals Game 1 deal with unreal dribble-drive, buzzer beater
• Spurs still standing in LeBron James' way
• Spurs pick up where they left off following 10-day layoff
• Dick Vitale tweets Eva Longoria about Tony Parker's game-winning shot
• Y! Sports Fan Shop: Buy 2013 NBA Finals merchandise
- Sports & Recreation
- LeBron James
- Kawhi Leonard