MIAMI – Kawhi Leonard approached the bench and quickly started backpedaling as San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich furrowed his brow and punched him four times across the chest. Popovich pressed his fist against the left side of Leonard’s chest, then the right, then the left and back to the right.
Right hand pressed against his sternum and gasping for air, Leonard finally exhaled when Popovich turned and walked away. Popovich’s celebratory, tough-love jabs were a small gesture of appreciation to the 22-year-old forward whose scoring and relentless defense on LeBron James spurred the Spurs to a 111-92 victory and a two-games-to-one lead over the Miami Heat.
Leonard scored a career-high 29 points – more than he had ever scored in high school, college or the NBA – on 10 of 13 field goals and surpassed James Worthy as the youngest player in Finals history to have at least 25 points while converting at least 75 percent of his field goals. He also became the first player since Kenyon Martin scored 35 against the Los Angeles Lakers in 2002 to establish a career high in the Finals.
“I just was in attack mode, trying to be aggressive,” said the soft-spoken Leonard, whose previous best scoring outburst was 26 points.
With his extra-long arms and hands the size of lacrosse stick net, Leonard helped re-open the championship window for the Spurs when they acquired the 6-foot-8 forward in a 2011 draft night trade. San Antonio swapped George Hill for the 15th pick to get Leonard and has reached the conference finals in each of the past three seasons and made back-to-back Finals trips for the first time in franchise history. Leonard’s value was made clear this season, when the Spurs went 62-20 but were 8-8 without him.
Popovich, never one for hyperbole, proclaimed Leonard as the future face of the franchise before last season. The Spurs have been waiting on Leonard to take the reins but until Tuesday night, Leonard was content playing the role as a defensive stopper while deferring to Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker as the main offensive cogs. The Spurs needed more from Leonard if they were going to defeat the Heat, and Popovich challenged him in no uncertain terms to do better after two lackluster games to start the series.
“He’s got to one of our better players on the court or were not good enough. That’s the way it is,” Popovich said. “He’s got the talent where –you know, it’s the NBA Finals. You can’t just be mediocre out there if you want to win a game, and everybody’s got to play well, and he did that. “
Before Game 3, Leonard said the game would show him what type of player he is. Did he get his answer? “Yeah for Game 3, but the series is not over yet,” Leonard said. “That’s one game. I have to keep going and, you know, helping the team.”
Leonard did more than help the team; he carried the Spurs in the first half, scoring 18 points on 6 of 7 shooting in the Spurs’ record-breaking first half and matched his total from the first two games. His powerful dunk over Chris Andersen in the fourth quarter essentially slammed the door on any comeback efforts for the Heat.
Leonard’s aggressiveness on offense forced James to work on both ends and helped wear down the four-time MVP. He was upset about fouling out in Game 2, when James scored 35 points and easily shot over Leonard or anyone else the Spurs put on him. James scored 14 points in the first quarter of Game 3 but Leonard harassed and limited him to just eight points in the final three quarters. Leonard also helped force James into committing seven turnovers and even blocked one of James’s layup attempts.
Leonard is so quiet that makes Duncan look gregarious. And as a sign of his shy nature, Leonard spoke to reporters after the game in the locker room instead of sitting at the podium to meet with a larger group live on NBATV. Duncan started to see the potential before Leonard ever suited up for the Spurs.
“Luckily I played with him a bunch during the lockout time. He came down and worked out with us when we were — before the team was together. So I kind of got an early look at him,” Duncan said. “I thought he had a lot of work to do. 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.”
The most successful playoff trio in NBA history is now leaning up Leonard to help it claim another championship. In three seasons, Leonard has started to earn that trust. “He’s young, and he’s on a team where it’s not we go at him every time,” Ginobili said. “So he does have a great potential, but it’s going to depend on him, as always, of not being too satisfied with what he’s doing now, working at it and develop. He’s in a great spot with a great coach, hopefully with a good team to develop him. But his potential is really hard to define or to be sure about.”