Kawhi Leonard has been fantastic defensively against LeBron James. (Photo credit)
“Doesn't say a whole lot, but he says a whole lot with his actions on the floor with how he plays.” Those were the words of Kawhi Leonard’s college coach, Steve Fisher. During the 2010-‘11 college basketball season, Leonard led the San Diego State Aztecs to their best season ever with a 32-2 record and a Sweet 16 berth, losing to eventual national champion UConn. Nobody really knew it at the time, but Leonard’s leadership and outstanding play that year were only signs of what was to come.
The night of the 2011 NBA Draft was a night that altered the future path of the San Antonio Spurs forever. The Spurs decided to trade away George Hill, their back-up point guard who had been one of the their most important players over the past two seasons (not to mention Greg Popovich’s favorite player), for the Indiana Pacers' 15th pick in the draft: Kawhi Leonard.
After seeing some inconsistent point guard play of the Pacers contribute to their downfall against the Heat (well, that and some guy named LeBron James), and seeing Leonard basically shut down that same LeBron fellow over the last three Finals games, it’s starting to look like the Spurs are the clear winner of the trade.
Now, that isn’t meant as an insult to George Hill: he played very well in the three Pacers wins last round against the Heat, but in their four losses, he was nearly invisible. Leonard, on the other hand, has used this year's playoff run to let the league know that there is a new lockdown defender in town, and he’s here to stay.
The Spurs easily walked over the Lakers in the first round, but in the second round, they were introduced to the Golden State Warriors and Stephen Curry madness. At first, they didn’t seem ready for it. Curry went off for 44 points in Game 1, a double overtime thriller that the Spurs won due to a Manu Ginobilli 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds left to play. After that game, it became evident that Tony Parker couldn’t be the lone defender for Curry in the series, so coach Greg Popovich decided to hand the Curry assignment to Leonard.
As the series progressed, you could see Leonard’s length, combined with his unusual speed for a player of his size, really began to frustrate Curry. In Game 5, Curry was held to just nine points on 4-14 shooting and 1-7 from long range. The most damning stat of all? The Warriors had a +/- of -21 when Curry was on the court.
After taking out the Warriors and Curry in 6 games, San Antonio’s next task was the Memphis Grizzlies. Memphis is a team with no real superstar, but the way their rotation works, they have 2 below average offensive players at the 2 and 3 spots in Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince. This meant that Leonard’s defensive skills in this series could be used on rising star point guard Mike Conley Jr.
The Spurs swept past the Grizzlies in four games, and while Conley had a decent series, Leonard really made it tough on him, taking away a lot of isolation plays that the Grizzles are able to run with Conley, and holding him to just nine points on 4-13 shooting in Game 4.
The Spurs are now in the middle of facing their toughest opponent yet, the Miami Heat. LeBron James is the MVP, a defending champ, and the undisputed best player in the world. So far in this series, however, Leonard hasn’t let LeBron score more then 18 points. The excuse LeBron and all his media worshipers (ESPN) have been using for his scoring woes is that James is being more passive and trying to get the other two thirds of the Big 3 involved.
Quite simply, that is just not the case. Obviously no one man can actually stop LeBron James. Leonard, however, with the help of the Spurs big men behind him, has come about as close to stopping him as you can get.
Tuesday night’s Game 3 was a great example. The 4th quarter was a wash due to the barrage of 3 pointers Danny Green and Gary Neal gave to the Spurs, but the first three quarters were a different story. James shot 7-21 on the night and didn’t attempt one free throw. In case you passed out due to shock, I’ll repeat that again. LeBron James did not attempt one free throw in Game 3 of the NBA Finals.
Are the refs swallowing their whistles a little bit because it’s the Finals? Maybe, but Leonard has done as good a job as any of keeping James in front of him and making him settle for jump shots, not easy layups (he is still getting his easy layups, just not at his normal LeBron rate). LeBron has been just a little more passive than usual, so that means his off ball movement must come into play more. Leonard has done a great job sticking with James when he doesn’t have the rock, effectively neutralizing the best player in the world.
With the Heat having their backs up against the wall, you have to assume James will be more assertive tonight. This is going to be a great test for Leonard, and this is a great chance to shut down The King once again. If he does so, and the Spurs find a way to close out the Heat and take home the title, then Leonard’s efforts in these playoffs will become legendary, and his place in NBA history will begin to be forged.
By: Ross Keith