Kawhi Leonard: Big Game Hunter

Kawhi Leonard is a big game hunter.

Sure, his big games never amount to a 30-10-5 stat-line. Really, his typical showcase game would be 16-7-3 with a couple of timely steals. And yet, there are very few players in the league who can match Kawhi’s value on both ends of the court in crucial situations.

We all know Tony Parker is the Spurs’ head of the snake and that Tim Duncan is the steely foundation, but Kawhi Leonard is San Antonio’s MVP.

The world’s premier players are now hyper athletic 6-foot-8 small forwards. No longer is the shooting guard the most holy of positions. A team’s ability to at least make LeBron James work and Kevin Durant miss a few shots is critical to succeeding in the NBA. At the start of this season, small forward talk was centered on LeBron, Durant and even Paul George – the three untradeable wing players in the league. It’s time to throw Kawhi Leonard into this mix.

Leonard’s development has been, frankly, stunning. He has always tried to focus on defense, rebounding and shooting corner threes, but just when you think he can be typecast, he unearths an insane Tony Parker spin cycle or Eurostep jam.

The third-year pro’s all-around game is constantly improving.

“He’s growing month by month, week by week,” Coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s been pretty special for us.”

We all know that he is the perfect Spur – silent but deadly. Yet, when Coach Pop offloaded one of his all-time favourite Spurs, George Hill, for Kawhi Leonard in 2011, the Spurs weren’t totally sure what they were about to embrace. He was the default NBA height of 6-foot-7, a gym junkie, born ready to defend and uttered as many words as Harpo Marx. At worst, Kawhi stood to become a longer and more athletic version of Tony Allen.

Oh my, the Spurs struck gold again in a trade that proved to be immensely important to both Indiana and San Antonio. Leonard is poised to become the face of the franchise once Duncan decides that winning isn’t fun anymore (whenever that freaking happens!).

At just 22-years-old, Leonard doesn’t waver from the big moment. He hunts them.

In just three seasons, he has baptised Mike Miller in the NBA Finals, given the world’s finest player arguably his greatest test, taken the challenge of defending Durant in the current Conference Finals and ensured the Spurs remain contenders in the Big Three’s twilight years. Oh yeah, he has done all this while not owning a Twitter account (for some reason I feel like this is important).

For the most part, the Spurs’ defence is predicated on clogging the paint, running shooters off the three-point line, forcing ill-advised long jumpers and avoiding fouls – all very orthodox in principle. However, Leonard’ length, athleticism and anticipation elevates San Antonio’s defence beyond the run-of-mill status. While Leonard was sidelined for 14 games this season, recovering from a hand fracture, the Spurs defensive efficiency spiked from 99.6 to 103.6.

While gambling on the defensive end is a whopping no-no for a Gregg Popovich team, Leonard is inclined to occasionally risk sound positioning for momentum-changing steals and easy transition baskets. What appears negligent isn’t so for a player with Leonard’s brains and brawn. He might not cast an intimidating shadow, but he is a scheme-buster on the defensive end that renders San Antonio a more unpredictable force.

Thanks to his exciting transition dunks, beastly hands and his I’ve-been-here-before facial expression after every highlight play (something that Lance Stephenson might like to adopt), Leonard is fast becoming everyone’s favourite Spur.

Sure, Leonard has benefited from growing in a system that accentuates the talents of each individual player and masks their deficiencies. Learning from a future Hall of Fame coach and three future Hall of Fame teammates probably helps well. Nonetheless, not every player is capable of rising to the occasion on the big stage. From guarding LeBron in the Finals last year and KD right now to dominating in a closeout game, Kawhi has proven that he is not afraid of stepping into the bright lights.

In game five of the Portland series, Kawhi’s 22 points and five steals earned him his first “podium” game. How did he feel about the honour?

“Uh… I don’t feel no certain way about it. Tim [Duncan] wanted me to come up here,” Kawhi said.

He might not be the sort of ‘bad man’ that characterises chest beaters like Paul Pierce or Kobe Bryant, but he’s definitely a silent assassin in the clutch moments.

In these playoffs, Sugar K Leonard (the nickname is actually growing on me, Shaq!) is showcasing a level of assertiveness we haven’t seen before. While his defence is consistent, his offense can often be sporadic. During stretches of the regular season, Kawhi often felt compelled to defer to Parker or Ginobili on the offensive end. Not anymore.

Kawhi isn’t reluctant to drag any undersized opponent down to the low block, or pull the trigger from beyond the arc. While he isn’t an explosive off-the-dribble threat, he does a nice job of exploiting space and angles with neat pull-up jumpers. We have seen him do these moves at various stages, but only now are we seeing Kawhi in constant “attack mode.”

Simply, the Spurs go as Kawhi goes. The last two games in Oklahoma City is testament to that belief. In games three and four, Leonard shot a paltry 35 percent and 20 points combined.

Between now and game five on Friday (Australian time), plenty of analysts will spin the 2012 narrative and the Spurs’ inability to counter OKC’s athleticism. They might have a point, but sometimes the solution is as simple as just playing better. No doubt, Kawhi Leonard will – it’s in his Spurs-DNA.

If San Antonio are able trump OKC and right their wrongs from last year’s Finals, don’t be surprised to see Leonard back on the podium following another pivotal high-pressure performance.

He’s a big game hunter, after all.


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