Friday January 23rd, 2015

CHICAGO — To be guarded by Kawhi Leonard is to enter a maze of circus mirrors. Reflections copy your every move, limbs are distorted and stretched to their limits, appearing to envelop you in size. Hands and feet are cartoonishly enlarged and each movement you make comes with a disorienting counter. Before you know it, escaping becomes a singular endeavor.

Watching closely as Leonard operates for an entire game can breed these sorts of thoughts. He’ll fill up a box score on his best nights, but his impact on the run of play is most fully appreciated in an empirical sense, through things that require the occasional squint to notice. San Antonio’s 104-81 loss to the re-energized Bulls on Thursday may have been “mentally and physically humiliating,” in the words of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, but there was plenty to be said about Leonard’s impact, particularly during a tight first half.

One minute he’s in a half-crouch, beating Jimmy Butler to spots, denying him chance to even catch the ball (he’d twice bait his counterpart, averaging more than 20 points per game, into early fouls). The next, he’s shadowing Derrick Rose off a screen, redirecting him, forcing him to split the defense or skip a difficult pass across the floor. In midst of his fourth season, Leonard has forced turnovers, forced gameplan changes and forced writers into delirium searching for new ways to describe his massive hands (9.75 inches long, for the record).

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Coupled with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Leonard's limbs enable the 6-foot-7 forward to palm rebounds from above, like a cornrowed arcade claw machine. Leonard likes to haul in loose balls just by reaching out of bounds and tapping them back to himself. Rarely is there a need to dive or over-exert. Many of his highlights come from simply reaching around to disarm unsuspecting ball-handlers. Just as the frenetic play leading to Ray Allen’s corner jumper has become the lasting image of the 2013 Finals, Leonard hounding LeBron James all over the court en route to MVP honors defined 2014.

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His final line on Thursday -- 16 points on 5-11 shooting with four rebounds -- was unspectacular, but it’s no grand conclusion to say the 23-year-old's return from a torn ligament in his shooting hand has been immediately impactful for the Spurs. Since his return a week ago, San Antonio notched three straight double-digit wins over before losing to the Bulls. Leonard has helped reorient a team that had been treading water with a 7-8 record while he was sidelined. In the four games since his return, Leonard has averaged 16.3 points, 8 rebounds, 2.3 assists and nearly two steals.

“Kawhi’s been playing great,” said Tim Duncan after Thursday’s game. “He was one of the few consistent players we had tonight. Just having him in the lineup changes everything that we do. He’s given us a really great boost.”

As Duncan spoke, Leonard sat in front of his locker, icing his knees, staring down at his phone. As the media entered the room, it would have been easy not to notice the reigning Finals MVP at all. As expected from a noted introvert maturing on the NBA’s most discreet outfit, he was visibly uninterested in sharing many postgame thoughts. 

When discussing basketball, he’s occasionally cliché (“We need all five, whoever’s out there on the floor, to compete [in order] to win.”) Sometimes he’s existential (On the loss: “It’s the NBA, things happen.”) The consistency of his performances reflects the tenor of his approach, no matter who he’s matching up with on a given night. Assignments like Rose and Butler are just names on a scoresheet.

“My mindset is the same every game,” Leonard said. “Whoever I’m playing against, I go in and try to stop their best scorer and try to get myself going on the offensive end.”

Going into Thursday night, San Antonio held a defensive rating of 94.5 with Leonard on the floor. Without him, that number rocketed to 103. The domino-effect nature of team defense, where each player’s positioning, for better or worse, affects the performance of the others, makes it difficult to quantify individual impact with metrics. The number doesn't chart Leonard's hustle plays, tipped balls or the fouls he draws, but it does offer at the very least a broad stroke of insight into his value as a defender. It's tangible.

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On a larger scale, San Antonio’s longevity as contenders owes a great deal to Leonard’s growth into perhaps the NBA’s most versatile two-way wing. He’s as viable an answer as there is for LeBron James or Kevin Durant. And he’s developing both as a post-up threat, with a go-to righty hook over his left shoulder, and a spot-up shooter, entering the night converting 56 percent of his catch-and shoot attempts.

Leonard’s return means San Antonio, currently in seventh place in the West, can begin to gaze upward in the standings once again. There’s plenty of room to ascend, should the Spurs choose to extend their starters’ minutes and fight for a higher seed. Only four games separate them from second place, a testament both to parity and just how hard it is to make it through the conference gauntlet these days. With the Suns just a game behind and the healthy, dangerous Thunder nipping at their heels for the final playoff spot, nothing feels simple. Nothing has been settled in the way of final positioning, not for anyone.

Popovich chided his team’s “laissez-faire” attitude, and the “entitlement” of his nonchalant first unit after the game slipped away in the third quarter. Credit the aggressive Bulls, beginning to find the brand of urgency San Antonio lacked. There was a hint of irony in the coach's comments, considering his history of resting Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and whoever else he feels like for entire games without warning. Still, he was right: the Spurs can’t afford to be content.

And as gracefully as that crew continues to age, the onus now falls on Leonard to take shifts in the figurative driver's seat as the Spurs begin fine-tuning for another grueling playoff voyage. The last month, both with and without him, makes for a useful litmus test, exhibiting just how much San Antonio's youngest star means to the whole operation. As the trio of future Hall-of-Famers approach the end of their careers, it's never been more clear that Leonard represents not only his team's long-term aspirations -- it's been widely assumed the Spurs lock him up long-term this summer -- but its most critical piece in the present. It doesn't take Leonard-size mitts to grasp that fact.

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