San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard shoots the ball over Houston’s Sam Dekker (Soobum Im/USA Today Sports)

In an NBA season that’s been dominated by big-name stars putting up big-time stats, Kawhi Leonard, like always, has been perfectly content to fly under the radar. With the competition for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award is intense as its ever been, with four huge stars – LeBron James, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant – all deservedly receiving serious consideration, Leonard – despite taking yet another step forward offensively and remaining an eraser on defense – has floated on the periphery of the race.

That ended, however, with a furious finish Monday night in San Antonio. By carrying the Spurs to a thrilling 112-110 victory over the Houston Rockets, Leonard made his official entry into the MVP chase in a way only he was ever going to: with his play on the court.

Leonard’s stat line Monday night – 39 points, including 17 in the fourth quarter, on 12-for-18 shooting, 4 for 5 from three-point range, a perfect 11 for 11 from the foul line, six rebounds, five assists, a steal and two blocks – was MVP-worthy on its own, even if someone hadn’t seen one second of the game. Those who did see it observed the way Leonard single-handedly secured a win in the final minute in a way few other players in the league could.

“Kawhi wanted it badly,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich told reporters after the game, “and he went and took it.”

It began with Leonard dribbling the ball on the wing with 33 seconds remaining as the Spurs trailed, 108-107, and with Houston’s best perimeter defender, Trevor Ariza, guarding him. The play that came next summed up Leonard’s evolution from the player he was when he came into the league – a 6-foot-8 combination of arms and legs who was no guarantee to become a refined product – to the dominant one with no weaknesses in his game that he is today.

Leonard got a screen about 30 feet from the basket from LaMarcus Aldridge, allowing him to get a big man, Nene, switched onto him. And while the Brazilian scrambled to stay in front of him, appearing to – reasonably – expect Leonard to try and get a head of steam toward the basket, he had no chance of stopping what Leonard chose to do instead: pulling up off the dribble from 25 feet and, all in one motion, rising and firing a shot toward the basket.

Someone watching Leonard for the first time on Monday would not have imagined he was a player who, upon entering the league in 2011, needed to have his shot completely revamped by San Antonio. Many wondered then if he’d even become a league-average shooter. Instead, Leonard showed why he’s become a legitimate threat from behind the arc, burying the shot with ease and sending the home crowd into a frenzy – and his own bench, including Spurs legend Manu Ginobili, into varying levels of disbelief – as San Antonio took a 110-108 lead.

Still, Leonard’s work wasn’t done. D’Antoni smartly didn’t call timeout, instead allowing Harden – who has deservedly been at the front of the line in the MVP discussion for weeks – to try and retake the lead on his own. And, for a moment, it looked like he might. After getting a screen set at halfcourt to get away from Leonard, who was guarding him, Harden attacked Spurs big man David Lee, going right at the rim to try to make a game-tying layup.

As Harden bullied his way to the rim, though, Leonard had managed to extricate himself from Nene’s screen, and was flying down the lane in a way reminiscent of James streaking to the rim last June at the end of Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

It became even more reminiscent of James block of an attempted layup by Golden State’s Andre Iguodala when Leonard leapt into the air and swatted away Harden’s game-tying layup attempt. Leonard then secured the rebound after an attempted follow-up by Nene missed, as well. Leonard calmly dribbled the ball out of the paint, was fouled and buried two free throws to officially salt the game away. It ensured the Spurs would come away with another victory and remain just two games back of the Warriors in the race for the NBA’s best record.

That San Antonio has been able to close the gap with Golden State over the past week is largely becasue of Leonard’s brilliance. Monday marked the fourth straight game Leonard has ensured a Spurs come-from-behind victory either by hitting a go-ahead shot or making a game-saving defensive play. It’s emblematic of his singular way of being able to impact the game dramatically at both ends of the court, as one would expect of a player averaging 26.3 points per game on 48 percent shooting overall, 38 percent from three-point range and just a shade under 90 percent from the foul line all while coming off back-to-back NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards.

In an informal straw poll conducted over a month ago of NBA media, as well as scouts and executives within the league, four names – Harden, Westbrook, James and Durant – all received votes, with many struggling to choose between them. But as both Leonard and the Spurs have droned on with relentless efficiency, piling up wins and stats by the bushel, Leonard is undoubtedly getting much stronger consideration today.

Now, those two games between the Spurs and Warriors could be the difference between him being in the running or being at the front of the line. Even if it is happening, in large part, because Durant is sidelined with the injuries he suffered in Washington last week, if San Antonio is able to surpass Golden State and finish the season with the NBA’s best record, an already-strong case for Leonard to win the award could potentially become unassailable – even among the heady company he currently is in.

So, no, Leonard hasn’t gotten the same kind of attention, nor has he sought it out, as the other high-profile candidates for MVP this season, all of whom seem to be playing a nightly game of “Can you top this?” as the regular season plays out. Monday night, Leonard made his case for the award. And, even amid arguably the strongest race for the league’s top honor in its history, his case is a worthy one.

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