MIAMI — There are two players in the NBA Finals who have been nearly impossible to stop during the 2012-13 postseason, LeBron James, and Tony Parker.
In 16 games, James is shooting 51.4% from the field, averaging 26.2 points, 6.2 assists, 7.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals in 41 minutes per game for the Miami Heat.
And truthfully, the numbers don’t even do him justice because of the way he impacts the game at both ends of the court…
Every. Single. Possession.
In 14 games, Parker is shooting 47.5%, scoring a playoff career high 23 points and dishing out 7.2 dimes (also a career high), to go along with 3.9 rebounds and 1.2 steals a game for the San Antonio Spurs.
The three-time NBA champion and 2007 Finals MVP (he averaged 24.5 PPG on 56.8% in the 2007 series sweep over Cleveland and would have been unanimous MVP if ESPN.com’s Marc Stein had not voted for Tim Duncan) expertly carved up the Memphis Grizzlies’ defense as if it were a roasted pig in the Western Conference finals.
Now, though, Parker is probably playing the best ball of his career.
And the same can be said about James, with no qualifier.
How the San Antonio Spurs elect to guard James and how the Miami Heat choose to play Parker will play a major role in the outcome of this series.
For the Spurs, not only will Kawhi Leonard have to be as locked in defensively as he’s ever been in his life, but the four other members on the court will have to follow coach Gregg Popovich’s orders – we’ll find out much more about how the Spurs have decided to play LBJ tonight in Game 1 – as best they can to ensure LeBron isn’t getting where he wants, when he wants to.
Leonard is vital, though, because he’s the only defender on the Spurs roster with the proper characteristics and capabilities to guard James.
“Leonard is a great defender and he’s got length and strength, which are two of the pre-requisites you must have to guard LeBron,” Miami’s Shane Battier said. “I think they’ll give him different looks. They won’t give him steady diet of one coverage.”
Indeed, Leonard is extremely lengthy; his 7’3″ wingspan is amongst the longest for a player who measured in at 6’6″ without shoes at the NBA Draft combine. Combined with length and strength, Leonard also has behemoth hands, which measure in at 9.8 inch long and 11.3 inch wide.
If this were the 1990’s, Leonard might be able to get away with using those bad boys in an attempt to dictate which way he wanted to funnel James.
But this is 2013, and hand-checking is a foul.
For his part, Leonard has an excellent personality to guard James.
Calm. Cool. Focused.
“You’ve just got to go out and compete, accept the challenge and play your best basketball,” he explained.
That’s all it is to Kawhi.
You see, Leonard has been through more than your average 21-year old has. His father, whom he was extremely close with, was murdered (fugitives never caught) just after closing up his car wash. According to an excerpt from Rick Reilly’s feature on Leonard for ESPN, Leonard’s relentless work ethic and focus were taught to him by his father, and somewhat reaffirmed to him by his tragic passing:
Maybe that’s what keeps Leonard focused like a microscope: the fear of where else his mind could go. In high school, you could find him shooting jumpers at 11 at night in the school gym. At San Diego State, he was relentless about improving, leaving home at 5 every morning to work out before class. Says his agent, Brian Elfus: “In 14 years in the business, he’s the most dedicated guy I’ve ever been around.”
“Kawhi has done a great job for us,” said 28-year old blossoming center, Tiago Splitter. “He’s developing every day and getting better. Kawhi, he’s a guy that when he’s playing good defense, we’re a better team. He makes a huge difference for us defensively. He’s got long arms, is athletic, is strong and mentally he’s always in the game. His mentality, it’s kind of like Timmy. Nothing takes him out of the game. He’s always trying to make a good play.”
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