That’s because as much as people want to label Kawhi Leonard as a role player, he isn’t one.
It’s tough to overstate how brilliantly Kawhi Leonard competed throughout the playoffs and especially during the Finals, but Gregg Popovich summed it up quite nicely at the podium after Game 7.
“I just talked to Kawhi and told him he was absolutely amazing,” said Popovich. “Nobody expected him at this young age to play the way he has through the whole playoffs. He really is a star in the making. He’s just beginning to feel what he has. He’s like a little baby learning how to walk, as far as NBA basketball is concerned. He’s a senior in college this year, and he’s come so far, and a lot of that credit goes to (assistant coaches) Chip Engelland and Chad Forcier what they’ve done in developing him.”
I’ve always been a huge Kawhi Leonard fan; when he was at San Diego State I fell in love with his competitive nature, rebounding, uncanny ability to corral rebounds (thanks to his 3XL hands and otherworldly timing as it relates to when it makes sense to attack the glass and when it’s time to get back), offensive potential and overall smooth demeanor on the court.
During my time at the NBA Finals, Leonard reaffirmed my beliefs about him: He’s a kid who wants to be competing against the best players when it matters most, as he told me before the series began.
It’s … and impressive to see a 21-year old who has so much room to grow – on and off the court – and also sees the bigger picture.
This season, these playoffs, this series were all jumping off points for Leonard. He’ll gain more control of the offense as Pop sees fit, but his greatest assets are his quiet natured high effort and intensity off the ball. Checking LeBron James or bolting past him on the offensive glass were equally impressive and as his offense continues to catch up to his motor, Leonard will likely become an All-Star caliber forward.
1. LeBron’s greatness and possible room for improvement: James was this close to losing his third NBA Finals in four tries.
It would’ve been a disaster.
But he came through with a monster 18-point fourth quarter (despite a few crucial turnovers that have been forgotten about since) in Game 6 and put had an historic 37-point (12-for-23 FG, 5-10 3FG), 12 rebound, 4 assist in Game 7, further cementing his place amongst the games uber-elite who have won back-to-back championships.
But from a scoring standpoint, I believe James will come back even stronger thanks to experiencing San Antonio’s defensive strategy throughout the series.
Despite winning his second Larry O’Brien and Bill Russell trophies within the same calendar year of taking two MVP awards and an Olympic Gold medal to the trophy case, James can still improve.
When the Spurs packed the paint with bodies and practically dared James to shoot in-rhythm, uncontested jump shots from the perimeter, there was a point where James had to remind himself that he was – is – one of the best jump shooters in basketball.
When he’s confidently striding into his jumper, without the thought burrowed deep down in his mind that, thanks to his ability to drive and pass the basketball with such ease, he can earn a higher efficiency shot for his teammates or himself, he’s lethal from the perimeter.
“I mean, after two‑and‑a‑half games I watched film, and my mind started to work and I said, okay, this is how they’re going to play me for the whole series,” James said following his historic 37-point (12-for-23 FG, 5-10 3FG), 12 rebound, 4 assist Game 7. “I looked at all my regular‑season stats, all my playoff stats, and I was one of the best mid‑range shooters in the game. I shot a career high from the three‑point line.
“I just told myself why ‑ don’t abandon what you’ve done all year,” continued James. “Don’t abandon now because they’re going under. Don’t force the paint. If it’s there, take it. If not, take the jumper. And I think the last ‑ I did a good job in Game 4. Didn’t make as many shots I would like to from the outside in Game 5, but I kept on getting into the rhythm of it. Just saying everything you’ve worked on, the repetition, the practices, the off‑season training, no matter how big the stakes are, no matter what’s on the line, just go with it. And I was able to do that.”
This explanation proves that, once again, LeBron James has matured before our eyes, on the grandest of stages.
More importantly, this realization affirms that when James is in attack mode and hunting jump shots from the beginning of a ball game (as he did in Game 7), he knocks them down with more regularity.
That’s not rocket science; it’s basketball.
When a player understands when and why he’ll be open, he doesn’t hesitate as often and he’ll have a smoother, more deliberate shooting motion more regularly than somebody who second guesses themselves, which is what happened to James in the 2010 NBA Finals and at various times throughout this series against the San Antonio.
When he decides to explode off more pick-and-roll situations with a jump shot in mind – like he did with 27.9 seconds left to clinch Game 7 – he’ll become an even more lethal and unstoppable force.
“It became time,” explained Spoelstra after Game 7. “He always rises to the occasion when it matters the most, when the competition is fiercest.”
Even though it’s almost unthinkable, as his confidence in this area of his game continues to rise, James’ dominance could soar to even greater heights.
BONUS: Ray Allen’s unthinkably huge 3-pointer from Game 6 will go down as one of the most clutch shots in NBA Finals history:
Jeremy Bauman is an aspiring shooting coach and scout who writes columns and blogs for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.