'The block is what makes him special': How Kawhi's stop on Harden makes his MVP case

With the game on the line, Kawhi Leonard made a special play to stop James Harden. (Getty Images)
With the game on the line, Kawhi Leonard made a special play to stop James Harden. (Getty Images)

James Harden began Monday’s marquee matchup against the San Antonio Spurs by showing everyone just what’s made him one of the NBA’s premier Most Valuable Player candidates all season long. Kawhi Leonard ended it by showing the Houston Rockets why his candidacy is picking up steam as we head into the home stretch.

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With the Rockets holding onto a 108-107 lead and just over 30 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Leonard dribbled above the 3-point arc, guarded by Houston swingman Trevor Ariza. Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge raced up to set a high screen, prompting Rockets big man Nene to step out and try to corral Leonard off the bounce. As Leonard dribbled to the left wing, he got closer to a second Rockets defender, guard Eric Gordon, who briefly lunged toward Kawhi’s dribble as Nene took one step too many back toward the paint, leaving Leonard just enough room to rise and fire unmolested.

He drilled the pull-up triple with 25.4 seconds left, giving San Antonio a 110-108 lead and leaving Manu Ginobili in the midst of an out-of-body experience on the Spurs’ bench:

.@manuginobili was as blown away by Kawhi's go-ahead 3 as you were. #gospursgo

A post shared by Ball Don't Lie (@yahooballdontlie) on Mar 7, 2017 at 9:37am PST

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The Rockets still had an opportunity to tie or re-take the lead, though, which meant Leonard’s work wasn’t done.

He picked up Harden at half-court, bounced off the back-pick Nene set on the Spurs logo to try to spring Harden free headed downhill, and hustled to stay with the play as Harden gained separation sprinting to the cup. Spurs big man David Lee found himself in the unenviable position of having to slow Harden with a full head of steam and without fouling — though that’s not how Harden remembers it — and he managed to do just that, giving just enough ground to steer clear of contact and stalling Harden just enough to allow Leonard to hit the lane, time his jump, and absolutely demolish Harden’s layup attempt off the backboard with just under 21 seconds remaining:

Nene grabbed the loose ball, but found himself in a thicket of arms, with Leonard, Aldridge and Danny Green all harassing him. Aldridge blocked his putback attempt, and Leonard came away with the rebound, dribbling free of traffic and forcing the Rockets to foul him. With the San Antonio faithful in full throat and raining down “M-V-P!” chants from the rafters, Leonard calmly splashed his two freebies, extending San Antonio’s lead to four with 14 seconds left in regulation.

After a timeout, the Rockets went for a quick two, with Gordon hitting Nene rolling to the rim for a dunk to cut the deficit to two with 10.6 seconds left. From there, it seemed academic — foul immediately on the inbounds, extend the game, make the Spurs hit their free throws, and hope to get lucky on the other end.

Except …

… it didn’t work out that way.

Nene and Harden chased Leonard around the backcourt, but never actually made contact for the foul, allowing Leonard to cut back toward his own basket and rag some more time off the clock. Realizing he was getting close to an eight-second violation, Leonard then lofted the ball up into the frontcourt, where Aldridge came down with the fade, kept the ball high over his head away from Rockets guard Patrick Beverley, and tossed it over to Ginobili as Beverley did his damnedest to generate a foul call with a two-hand shove to Aldridge’s chest.

No whistle blew. Spurs win, 112-110.

Harden was absolutely masterful in the early going at AT&T Center, orchestrating brilliantly in Mike D’Antoni’s spread pick-and-roll and torching San Antonio’s elite but conservative defense for 18 points and six assists to stake the Rockets to a 39-23 lead after 12 minutes. The league leader in assists turned in another monster game, finishing with 39 points on 13-for-20 shooting, including 6-for-9 from 3-point land and a 7-for-8 mark at the foul line, to go with 12 assists (albeit against seven turnovers) and three rebounds in 36 minutes of work:

But the Spurs tightened their defensive grip in the second quarter, limiting Houston to 15 points on 27.3 percent shooting in the frame to head into halftime down by seven, 54-47. San Antonio was able to get a better handle on the Rockets’ pick-and-roll attack after halftime, with Pop leaning on Lee in the middle over Dewayne Dedmon and Pau Gasol for more mobility and switching the Spurs’ defensive matchups on shoots like Ariza, Gordon and Ryan Anderson to try to short-circuit Houston’s devastating long-ball game.

But you don’t stop the Rockets’ offense as much as you just hope to slow it down for stretches. You need to be able to return fire to get over the top. Tony Parker was able to make Houston pay for roaming off him, knocking down three second-half 3-pointers and scoring 15 of his 19 points after intermission. Lee was active on the offensive glass and finishing on the interior, chipping in six second-half points to bolster the effort.

Ultimately, though, it was all about Leonard, who scored 25 points in the third and fourth, including 17 in the final 12 minutes (compared to just four in the fourth for Harden), on just 6-for-9 shooting from the floor with a perfect 11-for-11 line at the charity stripe after halftime:

Leonard would finish with 39 points on 12-for-18 shooting, six rebounds, five assists, two blocks, one steal and just one turnover in 39 minutes. He was damn near perfect on Monday, especially during that game-changing 24-second sequence that we should all be clipping and saving for awards season. There can be no finer or clearer crystallization of what makes the 2016-17 version of Leonard so damn remarkable.

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Once viewed as a perimeter stopper to park in the corners for open 3s, a souped-up Bruce Bowen, Leonard is now San Antonio’s primary creator, the guy in whose hands Gregg Popovich places the ball when the Spurs need to make something happen in crunch time. Only Russell Westbrook, Isaiah Thomas, Jimmy Butler and DeMar DeRozan have scored more points per minute in “clutch” situations (defined as the score being within five points in the game’s final five minutes) than Leonard has this season, and Kawhi absolutely carried San Antonio in the fourth quarter on Monday, scoring 15 of the Spurs’ final 19 points in the last six minutes to push them over the finish line.

But even as Leonard has expanded his offensive game, becoming downright lethal in the post, in the pick-and-roll and off the dribble, he has also continued to serve as the focal point of the Spurs’ defense. He’s a perimeter stopper without peer, capable of altering a game by both blanketing opposing scorers well enough to convince teams to look elsewhere and by erasing them at critical junctures, as he did on Harden’s late drive on Monday.

So, take a No. 1 offensive option who averages 26.3 points per game on 49/39/90 shooting splits, who uses nearly a third of his team’s offensive possessions and hardly ever turns the ball over, and who continues to show a growing ability to take games over down the stretch. Combine him with a two-time-reigning Defensive Player of the Year who’s still taking the challenge of enveloping the other team’s best dude night after night. Make that player his team’s lone All-Star, and make his team a 49-13 leviathan with the NBA’s No. 5 offense and No. 1 defense, just 2 1/2 games out of the NBA’s best record with a real shot at catching the wounded Warriors.

Add all that up into one package, and … I mean, that sounds a hell of a lot like the MVP, doesn’t it?

“The block is what makes him special,” Popovich said of Leonard after the game. “You know, obviously the 3 — you know, Harden makes 3s, Kawhi makes 3s, you know, this guy makes 3s, that guy makes 3s, Steph makes 3s, everybody does that. But I don’t know who goes at the other end and does what he does. Not that many people, on a consistent basis, an entire game, and game after game. Kawhi wanted it badly, and he went and took it.”

If he keeps this up, that might not be all he winds up taking.

After outdueling Harden to vanquish the Rockets, Leonard’s got dates coming Thursday with Russell Westbrook and Sunday with Stephen Curry; by Sunday, Leonard might have bumped off this year’s top two MVP favorites and the two-time-reigning winner of that award. Right now, it looks like Kawhi’s gunning for that No. 1 spot, and if nothing else, we’ve learned this much by now: when Kawhi Leonard wants what you’ve got, it’s about to be his.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!