A combination of young and old, the San Antonio Spurs seem to be on the verge of winning the NBA title for a fifth time. Despite the big three – Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili usually getting more attention than the rest of their teammates, it’s impossible to ignore the importance and the impact of Kawhi Leonard on this series, being the leading the favorite to win the Finals MVP, if the Spurs don’t run into anymore resistance.
The very notion of an MVP seems to be against what the San Antonio Spurs are about. A unit, a team, with names that might be more recognizable, but still no one standing out in terms of his importance to them. Their traditional big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili can have a completely mundane game statistically, but that will actually be the best possible thing for the Spurs.
Leonard isn’t a superstar, or at least not with star numbers. He is averaging 13.9 points per game in this postseason, but the Spurs have at least eight players with 7 points per game in the playoffs. The interesting thing about him has been the way he has rebounded from his awful two games in the beginning of the series. It wasn’t just the numbers: 18 points on 6-of-14 from the field through the two games, but being unable to handle LeBron James on defense, turning the ball over four times in the first game and fouling out in the second game, not being able to contribute on the open floor situations and not doing anything off the dribble.
Something changed on the plane to Miami.Leonard came out a different player in game 3, like his teammates. That carried on in game 4. By simply looking at the numbers, he is averaging 24.5 points in the two games with nine rebounds a night while shooting 56.7% from the field. He also has 2.5 blocks and 2.5 steals in the two games, which doesn’t begin to describe how dominant he has been on defense.
Leonard stopped trying to stop James off the dribble, but began denying him the ball, or making him work a lot harder for his points. The Spurs are being helped by the Heat hardly having any motion on their offense and their quick trapping whenever a player gets close to the rim. However, there also comes a point when it’s not just tactics and adjustments. Leonard is simply playing at a whole other level on defense, blowing past screens the Heat are trying to set and sending his long arms, along with Danny Green, to intercept any pass that even gets close to the zone he is defending.
In terms of being the most efficient player on the floor, Boris Diaw has been irreplaceable. His ability to defend LeBron James hasn’t been as important as in last year’s finals, but on offense he has making it impossible for the Heat to find one strategy that works for them against the Spurs’ incredible offense. He makes them small and big at the same time, forcing the Heat to help in the post and immediately punishing them with his fantastic vision and passing. The best +/- in the series belongs to him.
But Leonard has the traditional numbers in the games that mattered. The points. The wow factor. That plays a part in the choice the NBA makes. Leonard hasn’t been just the most important execution officer on offense, but his defense against the man who is supposed to be the best player in the series, LeBron James, makes him transcend over others so far. Things might change in game 5, even if it’s the last. However, it’s hard to point the finger at one player who has done more to turn this series around.