When a young player scores a career-high 29 points on 10-for-13 shooting in a 111-92 win in Game 3 in a tied NBA Finals, takes that “Next step,” it’s a big deal (especially in the social media centric world we live in today).
Normally he’ll shower, get dressed and head to the podium to answer questions from the media.
That was not the case on Tuesday evening.
Stone faced and serious, Kawhi Leonard headed toward the throng of media who awaited the Spurs forward inside the San Antonio locker room. Leonard had just finished the most complete offensive performance of his brief, three-year NBA career.
He was about to remind the world that he does not care about their expectations for him, that he is just another player who dons black, silver and white and has one goal in mind: Becoming a champion.
“I was just able to get into a rhythm tonight,” said Kawhi Leonard. “My teammates got me the ball and I made shots.”
If you are not aware by now, Leonard does not mince words; he’s direct and to the point.
“I just was in attack mode trying to be aggressive early,” he said. “Just knocking down a couple shots got me going and my teammates found me. They did a good job. They just got me involved.”
The outside world will salivate and hype Leonard’s virtuoso performance on both ends (Oh, yeah, he was the primary defender on LeBron James, helped fluster him to the point of an NBA Finals career high 7 turnovers and managed to get his paws on loose balls all over the floor)…
But Leonard and the Spurs will not be thinking about their absurdly efficient evening at the AAA come Wednesday morning.
“The series is not over yet,” said Leonard. “That’s one game. I have to keep going and, you know, helping the team.”
In Games 1 and 2 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Leonard shot a combined 6-for-14 from the field, scored 18 total points and fouled out of Game 2, in which LeBron James simply took over in typical LBJ fashion.
“He wasn’t down,” said Boris Diaw, who started in place of Tiago Splitter (9 points 5 rebounds, 3 assists and excellent decisions with the ball in his hands). “I wouldn’t call it struggling either. I think the fouls especially in the first game, quick fouls early didn’t let him be as aggressive as he is because he’s usually aggressive on both ends of the floor and defense gives him some adrenaline for offense. And then tonight it was back to what he did all year.”
Game 3, however, belonged to the Spurs silent assassin from the get-go.
Two free throws, an and-1, another bunny in the paint and three 3-pointers in the first quarter alone (16 points) summed up the game rather accurately in terms of how easily San Antonio had its way against one of the quickest, most dominant, ball-hawking defenses of the modern NBA era.
“He’s a very quiet guy who goes to the court and plays hard,” said Splitter (5 points, 4 rebounds) regarding the maturing Leonard. “He doesn’t show many emotions. He probably had the same face on after game 2 as he had tonight.”
To say the Spurs got whatever they wanted during the first half on Tuesday evening would be an understatement: In case you haven’t heard yet, San Antonio shot its way into the record books with a record-breaking 13-for-15 (86.7%) shooting performance in the first quarter, including four 3-pointers, on the way to a 41-25 lead that set the tone for the rest of the game.
If you’re wondering, the 1991 Chicago Bulls used to own that record.
They continued their hot shooting, as they knocked down their first six shots of the second quarter, which means they connected on an absurd 19-for-21 (90.5%) field goals through the first 15:52 of Game 3.
They finished the first half shooting 75.8%, which broke the Orlando Magic’s mark from 2009.
The Spurs red hot shooting was also their best defense.
“When you make shots it helps because, you know, our defense can get back and we can set whatever we want to do,” explained Tony Parker.
“That’ll never happen again,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “That was crazy.”
These are the NBA Finals, after all, and if there is one thing we should know by now it’s that no two games between these two games are the same.
“I’m not going to actually try to grade it,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “What it feels like is the Finals, and you have to deal with all the emotions that happen in The Finals, frustration, anger, pain, elation, all of it, and it can swing back and forth.
“It’s a long series. We have to be able to manage this, and it starts with tomorrow, owning it. That will be the process that we all have to go through together, not individually. We have to go through that together and somehow collectively come out with a much better response on Thursday.”
In the coming few days before Game 4 back at AAA, you can bet that the media will be chirping about Miami’s lack of intensity, focus and hustle on the defensive end (see hilarious proof here).
Are there areas where the Miami Heat would’ve liked to play better — much better?
But on this stage, at this point in the season, against a team that was moving the ball and making shots the way San Antonio had during the first half, sometimes the best thing to do is just move onto the next game.
“I don’t think we had a lack of urgency,” said LeBron James, who seemed as relaxed as he’s been throughout the playoffs, despite the Heat’s 2-1 deficit. “Just they were very aggressive and we didn’t match that. They came in with a desperation that we just didn’t match.”
Wade echoed James’ sentiment.
“Well, when they’re missing, our defense is great,” said Wade. “When they’re making shots, your defense is lackluster. You know, it’s the nature of the beast. Tonight they shot the ball very well. We helped them early on by giving them rhythm, and they knocked shots down from there. It’s things that we’ve done in previous games. You contest them. You look and see, Danny Green was 7‑for‑8 (15 points), but only hit one three. He did a lot of dribbling and we closed him off the 3-point line. He went to the basket a lot tonight. Little different than what he’s done, but that’s the job that we’re supposed to do. Now we’ve got to figure out a way if they make that adjustment, we have to be aware of it.
“But it’s a hit‑or‑miss league.”
Tonight Leonard and San Antonio made enough shots during the first half that even as they fell back to earth in the second half, they’d done enough damage to outlast Miami.
Kawhi, who is still rounding out his game, still learning how to become a champion (as scary as that reality is), hasn’t always had the ability to make shots so easily.
“I thought he had a lot of work to do,” said Tim Duncan (14 points, 6 rebounds), reflecting back to when he first met Leonard. “He wasn’t shooting the ball like he does now. But Pop and the guys saw something in him and they allowed him to kind of develop and find his own way. Last year I think he really got his confidence and understood what had he to do, and he continues to evolve year after year. This year you can see when he gets in a groove like that, he can be special.”
We don’t know what kind of scoring output Leonard will have throughout the rest of this series. The only thing we do know is that if he is open, if anyone is open, the Spurs will move the ball to get the best shot possible.
San Antonio is happy with the contribution they got from their maturing wing player, and at the end of the day that is exactly how they will perceive it.
It’s almost Leonard’s time to step up to the podium, and when it is, he’ll be more than ready.
Jeremy Bauman is a shooting coach and aspiring front office professional who writes columns for SheridanHoops.com. At night time he can be found at STATS LLC / SportVU, the NBA’s emerging game-tracking software, as an Overnight Data Analyst. Follow him on Twitter @JB_For_3_.