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It was Kawhi Leonard, in his own unfortunate way, that helped spur the Miami Heat to their comeback wins in the 2013 NBA Finals. It was Leonard’s free throw miss late in Game 6 of that series that helped allow for a desperate Miami run to tie the series and give them a Game 7 they would eventually take. Several Spurs components, from the veterans to the coaching staff to role players, also had a hand in letting a potential title slip away, but it was Leonard that had to spend the resulting summer staring down the most obvious of all the missteps.
He’s just about made up for that now. In a bit of a shocker, considering that the 22-year-old has never made an All-Star team and is hardly a point of emphasis for opposing defenses, Leonard was able to parlay his all-around gifts into another game-shifting performance in Game 5, and the 2014 NBA Finals MVP. Leonard finished the series with three consecutive 20-point games, the first time he’s done that in his career.
The third-year swingman was the only Spurs player to show a modicum of stability in the game’s opening moments, when Miami raced to a 22-6 lead with the man Leonard was charged with guarding – his two-time predecessor in Finals MVPs, LeBron James – tossing in 17 first-quarter points. Leonard, who won’t turn 23 until two weeks from Sunday, still managed to stay aggressive on both ends while tallying 22 points (on 7-of-10 shooting) and 10 rebounds in the 104-87 win.
If you toss out Leonard’s tough, foul-plagued first two contests of the series, he averaged 23.7 points and 9.3 caroms a contest as San Antonio pulled away in these Finals. Leonard shot over 68 percent from the floor in the final three wins, and though his first two games of the series were rough (18 points, nine fouls, and four rebounds combined in 54 total minutes), this wasn’t a novelty-driven, storyline-inspired selection.
No, Leonard earned it. It was his aggressive offensive play that helped set the stage in Game 3, on the road no less, and his ability to appear to remain indefatigable in the face of LeBron’s attempts to carry the Heat on his own was remarkable. Constantly swatting at James and pressuring the ball, sometimes slipping away for a half a second to mind James’ teammates in a screen-and-roll situation, Leonard’s defensive impact can’t be countered by pointing out that James still came through with terrific numbers in this series.
Following the contest, Leonard could be seem embracing Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who famously called Kawhi “the future of the franchise” in 2012 as part reality in the face of an aging roster, and part motivational tool. Leonard, prior to being handed the award by basketball legend Bill Russell, repeatedly thanked Popovich for pushing him, and Coach Pop has to be pleased that the relative youngster came through with three career games at the absolute best possible time of the season.
“We have conversations throughout the year,” Popovich explained following the game, "and they’re mostly one-way; Kawhi is a really quiet young man. He listens, he’s a great learner, [he’s] super-competitive. He has a drive to be the best that is really uncommon in our league.”
Pop went on to gush.
“He walks the walk," he said. "He’s there early, he’s there late. He wants more.”
This was apparent early in Game 5, with Leonard again appearing as if he was the only Spur that seemed unafraid of what was expected to be a bounce-back game from an angry and desperate Heat squad. By the time the Spurs had earned their own double-figure lead, the game’s particular trending topics had more to do with Manu Ginobili's and Patty Mills’ flashy first and second half play, respectively.
Leonard? He just did everything else. Consistently.
Even without the sort of perks that your typical NBA Finals MVP usually receives.
Here’s Popovich, again: “I haven’t called a play for him the entire playoff. I don’t call his number. Everything that’s there for him is out of the motion of the offense.”
What offense. And what defense. And what fantastic decision-making on either end. And what cool under pressure, when things could have gone pear-shaped against the two-time defending champs, a team featuring the NBA’s best player.
Kawhi Leonard encompasses all of these standout attributes even at an age in which most players are still finding their NBA sea legs. And in using that Finals-long sample size, the voters have decided, rightfully, that he was the biggest reason why San Antonio prevailed as the best team in the NBA this season.
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