Arguably the perfect Spur, Kawhi Leonard dominates Game 3

Wednesday June 11th, 2014

With 29 points and his stifling defense on LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard was the star of Game 3.
John W. McDonough/SI

MIAMI -- Stop me if you have heard this: Kawhi Leonard is the perfect Spur. He's quiet, which the Spurs like, because no team flies under the radar like San Antonio. When a benign Tim Duncan "we're going to do it" quote before the Finals is treated like something Muhammad Ali said before his fight with Sonny Liston, you know a team has achieved a rare level of blandness.

He's defensive minded, which matters for a team that leaned heavily on Bruce Bowen to get perimeter stops during the meat of its 15-year (and counting) dynasty. He's an efficient three-point shooter (37.9 percent during the regular season, 39.3 percent in the playoffs) who moves the ball, attacks the basket and never takes plays off.

It's as if Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford went into a workshop and built the perfect player to supplement an aging roster.

Which is why it was so surprising to see Leonard struggle the first two games of the Finals. He committed turnovers (four in Game 1), missed shots (six in Game 2) and fouled out in the fourth quarter of a heartbreaking Game 2 defeat.

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So, Pop, did you have anything to say to Kawhi on the way to Miami?

"We talked to Kawhi," Popovich said.


"That's family business," Popovich said.

Whatever Popovich said to Leonard -- and Leonard didn't offer much more insight -- it worked. Leonard was brilliant in Game 3, pouring in 29 points on an economical 10-for-13 shooting and playing stifling defense on LeBron James, who worked for every one of his 22 points. It was the type of performance that reminded you why Popovich has been adamant that someday the Spurs will be Leonard's to lead.

"He's got to be one of our better players on the court, or we're not good enough," Popovich said. "That's just the way it is. He's got that kind of talent."

Tim Duncan agrees. There was a time that Duncan was skeptical of Leonard. It was 2011, during the lockout, when Leonard traveled to Texas to work out with teammates who had never heard of him, who knew only that the price for bringing Leonard in was shipping the well liked George Hill out. In scrimmages, Duncan said, Leonard was less than impressive.

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"I thought he had a lot of work to do," Duncan said. "He wasn't shooting the ball like he does now. But Pop and the guys saw something in him and they allowed him to kind of develop and find his own way."

Leonard has found it. With the help of respected shooting coach Chip Engelland, who tinkered with Leonard's form and polished it during countless hours of post-practice work, Leonard has become a consistent perimeter threat. His true shooting percentage (60.2 percent) was better than Paul George this season (55.5 percent) and his value to the Spurs team defense isn't just anecdotal. During the 14 games Leonard missed with a hand injury, the Spurs surrendered 103.6 points per 100 possessions, up from 99.6 points they gave up with Leonard in the lineup.

"Last year I think he really got his confidence and understood what he had to do," Duncan said. "This year you can see, when he gets in a groove, he can be special."

There is a rare mental toughness in Leonard, another San Antonio trait, that he earned after a horrifying event. In 2008, Leonard's father was senselessly gunned down at the car wash he owned in Compton, Calif. The next day Leonard, a junior at Riverside King, played in a game, scoring 17 points.

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The Spurs took a risk in making a draft day trade for Leonard in 2011. Hill, a steady combo guard, was one of Popovich's favorite players. But Popovich and Buford knew the Spurs desperately needed to get younger and more athletic at the wing positions and Leonard seemed like the perfect player to develop to defend the likes of Kevin Durant and LeBron James, two players the Spurs would invariably have to limit to win another championship. Leonard, they believed, with his superior footwork and fast twitch reflexes, was that player.

He's become that, and so much more. Popovich claims he has never coached a player who has improved as rapidly as Leonard, a strong statement considering Duncan was the Finals MVP in his second season. There are the roots of Scottie Pippen-like skills in Leonard, skills that will undoubtedly be exposed as his role expands in the coming years.

For now, San Antonio just needs Leonard to be Leonard, to be efficient on offense and strong on defense. "We want him to be who he's been the whole year," said Popovich. For now, that will be enough.

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