In Game 4 of the 2014 NBA Finals, Kawhi Leonard posted 20 points, 14 rebounds, threesteals, and three blocks (along with three assists). Who was the last person to post those kind of numbers in a playoff game? You've probably heard by now that Tim Duncan last accomplished this in 2003. This may seem like mere coincidence, but it's much more than that.
Often dubbed as the "future" of the San Antonio Spurs, Kawhi Leonard went from potential lottery pick in 2011 to a legitimate candidate for Finals MVP in the 2014 NBA Finals. While often seen as a "steal" for the Spurs, the trade that saw San Antonio give up beloved backup point guard George Hill to Indiana for the #15 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft was completely fair at the time. Seeing Hill struggle in the postseason against the Miami Heat while Leonard has thrived suggests otherwise, but that's only because no one except the Spurs saw this emergence coming from Leonard.
Dropping a mere 9 points in each of the first two games of this year's NBA Finals, we were all left wondering what happened to the machine that is Kawhi Leonard. Guarding LeBron James always brings challenges, but something seemed off. Fouling out in Game 2 after only 32 minutes while also laboring through a woeful 3-9 shooting start, Leonard left us all wondering where the "future" went (okay, maybe I'm exaggerating just a bit). Leonard needed something to get him straightened up.
Next thing you know, we're in the middle of Game 3 wondering how Leonard went from zero to hero in just 48 hours. Leonard couldn't miss (he missed three shots of the thirteen he took, but you get the idea). The first half was a masterful performance from the entire Spurs roster, and they were absolutely pouring it on the Heat, executing the best offensive first half performance in NBA Finals history. Who was behind it? Leonard set the tone early, hitting contested layups, floaters in the lane, and timely 3-pointers. The result of Leonard's dominance was his highest point-total since high school. He dropped 29 points, but he also added four rebounds, two assists, two blocks, and two steals (not to mention his three 3-pointers. In fact, the only shots he missed were 3-pointers). How did Leonard transform so rapidly?
Gregg Popovich had a nice chat with Leonard, and he revealed some of it to the media indirectly:
"That's how he's played all year long. He's got to be one of our better players on the court or we're not good enough. That's just the way it is." Popovich added, "You know, it's the NBA Finals. You can't just be mediocre out there if you want to win a game, and everybody's got to play well, and he did that."
Clearly, Leonard got the message. Along with Popovich's words, veterans like Tim Duncan and Tony Parker were on him, showing him how he needs to assertively place his fingerprint on the game. Duncan had this to say: "We've been on him about continuing to play."
Oh, he certainly played. Not known for scoring outbursts, Leonard put on a masterful display, picking apart Miami's defense in a plethora of different ways. How could he ever top what he did in Game 3?
Well, Game 4. As noted above, he dropped a 20-14-3-3-3 line, and you know what? That's more impressive than his 29 points in Game 3 where Leonard was shooting lights out while providing impressive defense on LeBron James once again. In Game 4, Leonard continued to do that, but he also crashed the boards more effectively, played better team defense, and he played his part as an effective ball-mover on a team full of those kinds of players. Every single player on San Antonio's roster is a great passer; it's part of their system. They're easily the best passing team in the NBA. Leonard is a huge part of that, and his developing offensive game will keep defenders guessing his next move not only now, but for the rest of his career.
Leonard's all-around game was phenomenal, and he surely kept playing as Duncan suggested he should. On the rare occasion that Leonard made a mistake (or when LeBron James scored on him), Leonard put his head down and moved on to the next play. That mentality separates the boys from the men in the NBA. Those who get caught up in their mistakes are doomed to continue to make mistakes, and that precludes them from making progress. While it's not the narrative-driven "killer instinct" that the media throws around, the "move on" mentality is just as (if not more) important to have. If this transformation of mentality sticks with Leonard, the Spurs will be just fine.
By 2003, Tim Duncan had routinely put up masterful performances. The fact that he was the last player to put up 20-14-3-3 (and just the second at that time behind Hakeem Olajuwon) is symbolic, in a way. Duncan always was considered the future of the Spurs, dating back to even before the NBA Draft when the Spurs won the Lottery. In 2003, he continued to cement his place in the NBA. Flash forward to 2014, and Leonard is doing the same thing. While not as heralded as pre-Draft Duncan, Leonard has already been deemed the future of the Spurs. Now, he's just cementing his place. In a way, Leonard's emergence is similar to that of Rajon Rondo in 2010. The Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce had been in place, but Rondo emerged as the most important player out of the four as time progressed. Leonard's "Rondo role" will only increase as the future reveals itself.
If Leonard wins Finals MVP (assuming the Spurs take care of this 3-1 series lead), that doesn't automatically vault him over players like Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, and (definitely not) Kevin Durant. It would be a good start, though. Leonard has the makings to be better, and his defense is the biggest plus on his road to being one of the best two-way players in the NBA. Now, it's about time Leonard stops being the "future" of the Spurs.
A post-game interview went a little like this after Leonard's masterful Game 4:
Stuart Scott: "Kawhi Leonard, who are you, man?"
Leonard (with a stoic face): "Kawhi Leonard."
Yeah, he appears to be an emotionless robot, but that's not where the significance of that quote is found. He has his own identity in the NBA, and he could potentially be not only a star for the Spurs, but a star in the NBA. Keeping in mind the present, though, Leonard is here now, and guess what.
He's Kawhi Leonard.