We don’t hear about him talking trash. We rarely see him pound his chest and roar after big plays. Unlike the dude who’s finished second to him in Defensive Player of the Year voting in each of the last two seasons, he doesn’t punctuate his pummelings with performance. But it’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch out for, and Kawhi Leonard is without a doubt basketball’s most brutalizing bully.
The latest unfortunate soul to suffer the silent killer’s strong-arm tactics: Sacramento Kings guard Ben McLemore, who entered Thursday’s home opener at his team’s new gym hoping to kickstart a strong fourth NBA season and exited hearing “Ante Up” in his head on an endless loop:
On consecutive possessions during the third quarter of the first regular season game ever at the Golden 1 Center, Leonard straight-up victimized the Kansas product. Kawhi refused to accept the convention that the defender will wait for the ball-handler to make a move toward the basket or to make a play before responding in kind. Instead, he attacked the unsteady ball-handler and playmaker like a lioness pouncing on a wounded gazelle.
Leonard invades McLemore’s space. When McLemore can’t make him stop, he jams his hand into Ben’s pocket and steals his lunch money. When he’s got the cash in his hand, he races off to go spend it, resulting in a fast-break layup and three free throws. He does it all with an unnerving tranquility, with a perfectly placid countenance, with the unshakable confidence in a worldview based on the principle that possession is nine-tenths of the law.
After the second steal, Kings coach Dave Joerger took McLemore out of the game. He never got back in. Of course he didn’t. When you go through a traumatic experience, the least your boss can do is give you the rest of the day off.
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Through sheer broad-day, no-mask, cold-hearted larceny, Kawhi Leonard turned a two-point deficit into a three-point lead. The Spurs would never trail again, eventually outlasting the similarly awesome DeMarcus Cousins (37 points on 10-for-22 shooting, 16 rebounds) for a 102-94 win. Leonard had more steals in the third quarter on Thursday (four) than the Kings had made field goals (three). That seems insane, but it’s true, and it’s true because he’s ruthless and relentless and supremely self-assured when it comes to dispossessing his prey. (And also because the Kings couldn’t get anything going offensively in the third quarter against a Spurs defense that’s still trying to find its way without Duncan in the middle.)
To Leonard, this is no big deal; this is just the way things are. To the rest of us, though — and even to his coach, who’s seen a thing or two over the years — it’s something pretty special. From Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:
“I just tried to do something for us, harden up our defense,” said Leonard, the All-Star forward who finished with 30 points, seven rebounds, five assists and five steals. “I saw an opportunity, saw the ball, so I just swiped at it.” […]
Typically blasé about individual accomplishments, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Leonard was “ridiculous, as usual” Thursday.
“The things he does just amaze me,” Popovich said.
You almost never hear Pop effuse this way about individual highlight plays. Here he is on Leonard's back-to-back thefts of Ben McLemore: pic.twitter.com/ffGbPGP2Qi
— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) October 28, 2016
And now, with Leonard in his sixth season and firmly transitioned into the clear No. 1 option and leader of the Spurs as they enter the post-Tim Duncan era, there aren’t many people doing what Kawhi does on the other end, either.
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As he did in San Antonio’s opening-night bludgeoning of the Golden State Warriors, Leonard led the way for the Spurs offense, scoring 30 points on 11-for-21 shooting to go with five assists, five steals and three rebounds in 35 minutes of work. It was his second 30-point outing in two tries; he had only four last season, when he catapulted into the ranks of the NBA’s elite and finished second in MVP voting. He’s the first player in 14 years to notch 30-plus points and five-plus steals in consecutive games, and the first Spur to do so in three decades. He has 65 points and 10 steals in the season’s first two games; the last guy to do that was World B. Free in 1979.
It’s not just the numbers, though; it’s the everything. The handle’s tighter, the dribble lower, the crouch more menacing and the first step quicker. The footwork’s sharper, the release smoother, the motion more assured. Out of the post, off a dribble handoff, in the pick-and-roll, wherever: Leonard’s some kind of monster right now, getting to his spots and to the line and finishing with confidence … and he hasn’t even gotten his long-range stroke cranked up yet (just 1-for-8 from 3-point land thus far).
What happens when the two-time-reigning Defensive Player of the Year also becomes one of the game’s most lethal one-on-one scorers and shotmakers? Well, for starters, it’s enough to make an All-NBA offensive threat shake his head, laugh and work blue:
A video posted by Sean Cunningham (@abc10sean) on Oct 28, 2016 at 12:47am PDT
“That dude’s good, man,” said a chuckling Cousins. “He’s f***** good. He’s good. He’s really good. He was hitting shots over two guys. I heard he was working with Kobe, and, um, there was some flashes of Kobe out here.”
He might not pop his jersey or bare his fangs like the Black Mamba, but anyone doubting that Leonard’s got inside him an unsparing ferocity that everyone’s favorite editor would appreciate need only ask Ben McLemore. Or, y’know, what’s left of him.
“I just try to play every game like it’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals,” Leonard said after the game, according to McDonald. “It’s win or lose.”
More often than not, it’s “I win, you lose.” Tuck your chains, ball-handlers. It’s not safe out there.
Hat-tip to friend of the program James Herbert of CBSSports.com.
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