Last night looked like one dynasty’s long overdue death rattle and the next dynasty stepping over the vanquished to lounge comfortably on the throne. The Miami Heat are not a fluke. Clevelanders and ding-dongs like Skip Bayless and all other pathological LeBron James haters will have to get over the great evil done to them. It’s over. The King left, he won, he won again, and he’s probably going to win next year too. Is he going to win as many as Michael Jordan? I don’t care. Should we care? Sure, it’s sports! Care about whatever you want, find your little niche and enjoy it. But should you become obsessed with that? No. Enjoy it. It’s a beautiful thing we’re seeing, even if Mario Chalmers is involved in it.
But that’s enough about the Heat. I want to talk about Kawhi Leonard. If the Spurs had managed to pull out the victory, Leonard would have had a much more compelling case than Danny Green for Finals MVP. Danny Green is a fine player and a very good three-point shooter. But that’s what he is and that’s likely what he’ll remain. With Kawhi Leonard, you can’t really quite be sure. He’s a player in some strange nebulous no-man’s-land of stardom and glue guy. He has no handle to speak of, but shoots with a deft touch. His attitude on the floor is laconic at best, nearly emotionless at times, robotic, like the Spurs just called him up straight from their assembly line. Will he ever become a superstar? Doubtful. But despite all that, Leonard makes things happen. His hustle, his fearlessness, his long arms that enrage defenders, his three-point acumen (not just his accuracy, which is decent, but his knack for when to take them), all of these things and more are what that kept the Spurs winning games all year-long. And he fits with the old guys. He’s a perfect counterbalance to Manu Ginobli, a staid foot soldier that works miracles in between Ginobli’s slapdash gallantry. He shares Duncan’s attitude as a scholar of the game. Crank Gregg Popovich obviously respects him.
In the deciding game, Leonard tore down 16 rebounds and contributed 19 points. This wasn’t his game though. The Big Three seemed to have chosen to win it or lose it for themselves. Tony Parker has an awful game, Ginobli was alternatively good and boneheaded, and Duncan was great, but not Game 6 Great. Leonard’s quietly heralded contributions kept the Spurs in striking distance all night. He had the most poise on the court of any Spur. His mistakes and miscues are always a shock, because he plays the game with such intelligence. Other players had better individual games in the series, but Leonard was consistent.
The other day I wrote this about Leonard:
Leonard may never have a “break-out” year playing with the Spurs, at least as the Spurs are presently constructed. He is a company man destined for bigger and better things. Leonard embodies the rough-hewn dignity of Popovich’s vision. An elite defender at the wing, a threat from the corner, a humorless visage, and a basketball IQ that is off the charts (or par for the course among the Spurs). In the playoffs Leonard is shooting 39% from 3, over 50% from the floor, grabbing almost 9 rebounds a game (!) and he’s also currently making life absolutely miserable for LeBron James, who is a certified asteroid among mortals. He doesn’t score a ton but he doesn’t have to, not with the Big Three still plugging along and the communal effort of his squad. But someday that may change and someday we might remember Leonard as the best of Popovich’s vaunted defensive aces. And that is high praise indeed.
In many ways this was Kawhi Leonard being presented for the first time to high society. He passed the test time and time again. And I’m not sure how his game will evolve or develop or shift or build upon itself, but it will, and with the sunset for one era in San Antonio, Leonard stands at the forefront of the next. He seems up to it though. He seems up for anything.
And I doubt this will be the last time he plays in the NBA Finals.