Kawhi Leonard’s offense has its day as Spurs take 2-0 lead over Portland
Kawhi Leonard took a hard dribble at the free throw line and rose up for the jumper over the outstretched arm of his defender. The ball slithered through the net and Leonard, drenched in sweat, turned, went to halfcourt and did it once more, getting the ball and scoring again.
It was April 15 and San Antonio had wrapped up its formal practice an hour before. No other Spurs were out on the court anymore, just Leonard going at an assistant coach over and over again until he got it right, until the movements he was trying to master were committed to muscle memory.
The Spurs had lost to Houston the evening before and would drop their regular season finale against the Lakers the following evening, but in between Leonard was out on the floor getting repetition after repetition.
Crossovers, step-backs, dribble drives, post-ups, one-dribble pull-ups. Any which way you could think of someone getting a shot off with the ball in his hands, Leonard was drilling it into his repertoire. This wasn’t a mass-produced basketball player, but a one who was handcrafting his own game. I was out of breath just watching him.
On Thursday night, nearly a month later, it was all put into play as Leonard hit 8-of-9 shots for 20 points and the Spurs won 114-97, sending the Portland Trail Blazers into a 2-0 pit in the second round of the playoffs. Leonard made all four of his 3-point attempts and threw in five rebounds, two blocks and two steals for good measure.
Much like in Game 1, the Spurs jumped out to a big first half lead—this time thanks to a 41-point second quarter—and boat-raced their way to another playoff win. Led by Leonard, who had 12 first-quarter points, San Antonio hit 53 percent of its shots in Game 2 and an obscene 12-for-20 from beyond the arc.
The Blazers cut San Antonio’s lead to nine points with just under five minutes remaining, but the Spurs rattled off eight straight points—a bucket in the lane from Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili finding Leonard coiled and ready to strike in the corner for 3, and another 3 from Ginobili—pushed the lead back to 17 just a couple minutes later, a deficit that proved to be too great to scale.
The driving force was Leonard. Relied upon from day one as a excellent rebounder and constricting defender, it’s been Leonard’s offense that has continued to develop as his NBA career goes along.
“We talked a lot about him last year with you guys about what he did in the Finals,” Ginobili said postgame. “He did so good, now he’s just maintaining that. He’s just becoming more reliable. He became a force on our squad and somebody that we look for on offense, but we rely on defensively and for the rebounds.
“He’s a big part of what we do.”
Many felt that Leonard made his bones in last season’s Finals when he averaged 14.6 points, 11.1 rebounds and two steals per game over the seven game series. Leonard played a lot of smallball power forward in that series when the Heat trotted out LeBron James and Shane Battier in the two forward spots night after night.
Some observers around the league wondered if Leonard fared better in that role than as a traditional small forward when his numbers didn’t increase as much as some would have liked, going from 11.9 points on 49 percent shooting and six rebounds per game last season to 12.8 points on 52 percent shooting and 6.2 boards a contest in the regular season this year.
“This is a process,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said after the game. “When a young player comes in, it’s smart when a young player defers… In Kawhi’s case, he has three veteran players out there and it has been a process for him to come into his own, so to speak.”
Popovich wants Kawhi Leonard to be a star. Spurs fans crave the same thing. More importantly, Leonard himself wants to be a star. In situations like this, it’s usually not a matter of if, but when.
In Game 2, the cold-blooded Leonard scored efficiently without getting any buckets from his highest percentage play, the turnover leading to the all-alone, one-man fast break, usually capped-off with a venomous dunk. Instead, Leonard charmed the Blazers with his array of pull-ups, post-ups and dribble-drives, the same moves he was working on so diligently that day after practice.
“There might be someone else open on the court, but he jumps up in the air, he catches it now and is pretty uncontested,” Pop said. “It’s tough to get to his shot. He is low and has decent quickness and with each make he gets more confident.”
So far this series, Portland hasn’t been able to slow anybody in silver and black. Tony Parker produced 16 points and 10 assists in Game 2 for the Spurs, and Ginobili contributed 16, five rebounds and four assists off the bench. Leonard’s role in the offense grows by the day and his teammates have enabled him to control more of the proceedings on that end of the floor.
Parker will continue to be the key to San Antonio’s attack for the duration of this playoff run. The Spurs won’t win a title if he plays like he did in the first few games of their previous series. But it’s just a matter of time before the keys to the offense belong to Leonard, lord knows he’s worked for it.