The old adage goes that player's names are made and solidified in the NBA Finals. Such can be seen in the media frenzy surrounding the unlikely rise of Gary Neal and Danny Green whose combined 51 points in Game 3 against the Heat led to a massive 113-77 rout. In the post-game conference, when asked about how he was so capable of containing the league's MVP, LeBron James, and holding him to just fifteen points, the notoriously dry Popovich refused to answer the question and with good reason. If it's true that names can be made in the playoffs, it is also true that names can be broken or at least tarnished. Coach Popovich hinted at as much in fielding questions on LeBron James' lackluster performance against the Spurs in Game 1. When asked to remark on James' performance in Game 3 and what he thought James could do better, Coach Popovich dryly remarked, "He's a grown man. He doesn't need you to tell him anything. He knows more than all of you put together." Thus far, the conversation surrounding Miami's performance in the Finals centers on the singular narrative of what LeBron James can do better. Perhaps, the better question to ask is, "What is Kawhi Leonard doing right?"
With only 11 points and 1.7 assists averaged throughout this series, it might seem at first glance that Leonard is a minor role-player, an afterthought, a whistle in the riptide wind that is the Spurs' performance in this series. Indeed, he very well might be to the casual observer, but only because the narrative surrounding LeBron's fall from MVP grace is a much more enticing narrative to follow than the story of a rising small forward's ability to contain the so-called greatest contemporary player in the world. You only need to look as far as Leonard's averages of 12 rebounds, two steals, and myriad of forced turnovers to see that Popovich's control over the Heat relies as much on Kawhi Leonard as it does on the offensive spark of the rest of his team.
Much of Miami's trouble in this series has come from their inability to get to the free-throw line as well as their inability, with the exception of Chris Anderson, to score points inside the paint. Leonard's defense of James has been brilliant, seldom allowing the 75.3% free throw shooter to get to the line while somehow managing to disallow him to score on the post, instead forcing James to kick the ball out, ad nauseum, to players who can't seem to convert on the assist. Mario Chalmers played the entirety of Game 3 without scoring any points. Dwayne Wade went seven for 15 from the field in that same game. Leonard's defense creates a conundrum for LeBron, daring him to shoot from mid-range or beyond the arc in order to score or facilitate as a passer, putting the ball into player's hands who might be willing but unable to score with the same potency as James can, though there's evidence James' potency is waning as well, scoring 7/21 in Game 1, 7/17 in Game 2, and 7/16 in Game 3.
There's another old adage that goes, "defensive players never get their due." Fair enough. Not that Leonard or Danny Green or Gary Neal are griping. Leonard, like Green and Neal, is unassuming, almost forgotten. Gregg Popovich knows this. The rest of the Spurs know this. And it's perhaps because of this, their almost banal presence, that the Heat defense (and in turn offense) have gone soft on these players, opting instead to double up on the likes of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Tiago Splitter. For the Heat, players like Leonard are supposed to be nobodies. The Heat need for them to be nobodies if they stand a chance to win.
It's fair to say that Kawhi Leonard is in the running for Finals MVP should the Spurs win this series. Or at least he should be. He's done what many-a-coach have considered to be the impossible in controlling LeBron James. In turn he controls the Heat and propels the Spurs onward toward their fifth NBA championship. His name too will be forged in these Finals.
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