Kawhi Leonard was marvelous down the stretch of Thursday night’s Game 6. On top of scoring 10 of his game-high 29 points in the fourth quarter to fuel the San Antonio Spurs’ comeback against the Memphis Grizzlies, Leonard also took over with his playmaking on both ends of the floor late, setting up scores by David Lee and Tony Parker while taking away a layup by stepping in front of a James Ennis pass intended for Zach Randolph:
Three possessions, three plays, no shots, takeover. https://t.co/kRkk7ZU7ie
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) April 28, 2017
Leonard put his sizable pawprints all over the proceedings late, teaming with Parker to lead the Spurs to a 103-96 win that finished off a 4-2 win in their best-of-seven series against a good, tough Grizzlies squad. This was nothing new — it was an extension of what he’d done throughout a series that saw the 25-year-old average 31.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.0 steals in 37.7 minutes per game, while shooting a blistering 54.8 percent from the field, 48.3 percent from the 3-point arc on just under five attempts a night, and 96.7 percent from the free-throw line on just over 10 trips a contest.
With LaMarcus Aldridge struggling to break out against the bruising Grizzlies defense and San Antonio’s supplemental scorers (save Parker and, in Game 5, Patty Mills) kept largely under wraps, the Spurs needed Leonard to do damn near everything. He did, while continuing to short-circuit Memphis’ offense every chance he got. He was remarkable, and after the Spurs closed out, head coach Gregg Popovich offered the most glowing review possible of his All-Star forward’s performance:
Gregg Popovich on Kawhi Leonard: "The best player in the league right now. He's the best two-way player and does it all with such class." pic.twitter.com/Oc4JI9RQJD
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 28, 2017
“We don’t execute as well as Memphis did,” Popovich said during his post-game press conference. “We have a knack for hanging in because things happen, and obviously, Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now. He’s the best two-way player and does it all with such class. It’s impressive.”
After getting a six-game crash course on just how impressive today’s version of Leonard is — after having seen previous prototypes up close and personal in the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals, as an assistant coach on the Big Three-era Miami Heat — Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale found himself hard-pressed to disagree with Pop’s take.
Grizzlies coach David Fizdale with *total* respect for Spurs' Kawhi Leonard pic.twitter.com/5B5nlL263F
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 28, 2017
“Kawhi Leonard — good God,” said Fizdale, who earned a place this postseason among the sport’s great postgame orators. “I wasn’t playing about what I said, either. He actually just told me he does bleed antifreeze. He admitted to it, so we’re getting him checked out. But he’s a great basketball player, and he is as first-class a kid as they come […] and this guy, just every year, has taken his game up another notch, and he’s different. More than any other star, he plays both ends of the floor. I mean, he is just — he’s exceptional, man.
“The thing that just makes him different is I just don’t know many possessions that he takes off because he plays both ends of the floor so well,” Fizdale added. “And his conditioning is like nothing I’ve ever seen. I mean, the guy, he just keeps coming and keeps coming and keeps coming and he finds a way to make a play, a winning play, whether it’s a steal, a block, a rebound, a drive, pass. He made plays tonight off the dribble. You know, he makes a good argument.”
There are, of course, reasonable arguments to be made for a number of other players as the NBA’s best right now — leading MVP candidates James Harden and Russell Westbrook, reigning NBA champion LeBron James, former MVPs Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, and so on. Leonard, unsurprisingly, didn’t seem especially interested in getting gassed off the compliment.
— Jabari Young (@JabariJYoung) April 28, 2017
“I’ve said it before: I’m trying to be the best player, I’m trying to be the best team,” Leonard said after the win. “And you know, that changes every day, being the ‘best player.’ Somebody have a bad game, somebody have a great game, and he’s the best player. If he has a bad game and I have a good game, then I’m the best player. So it just changes every day.”
Leonard’s challenge in the next round, when the second-seeded Spurs take on the third-seeded Houston Rockets in a series that tips off Monday night in San Antonio, will be doing everything in his power to drop Harden down a notch in that conversation. The bearded playmaker just averaged 33.2 points, 7.0 assists and 6.4 rebounds per game in knocking off Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder in five games, but battling Leonard and the Spurs — a much deeper, more talented team — will represent a steep step up in competition.
Whether Leonard’s able to keep up his remarkable Round 1 production remains to be seen, but what he’s doing on both ends of the court is impressive enough to get one of NBA history’s premier curmudgeons to get effusive with his phrase. Then again, as Fizdale noted, it’s not exactly like Pop’s an impartial third party in the discussion.
“I would say that about my own guy, too,” Fizdale said.
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