Kawhi Leonard showcases next dimension in quest to lead Spurs

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What got into Kawhi Leonard?

After failing to crack double digits in Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals, Leonard led the Spurs with 29 points in their 111-92 Game 3 win over the Heat on Tuesday.

“We just want him to be who he’s been the whole year – the regular season and the playoffs,” Gregg Popovich said.

No, seriously, Pop. What got into Leonard?

“He was just himself,” the San Antonio coach said. “I don’t know what you’re looking for.”

Popovich might be incredulous because he saw this coming so long ago, he can’t understand what took so long for everyone else to catch up. Before last season, Popovich predicted Leonard would become the face of the Spurs.

Now, it might be happening before our eyes.

The 22-year-old Leonard has drawn praise from all types, but the analytically inclined have particularly latched onto his all-around production. He led San Antonio in win shares during last year’s playoffs and again during this year’s regular season.

But being the face of a franchise, even the Spurs, involves more than quiet efficiency. It requires becoming the focal point at times, something Leonard had never done to this extent – not even at San Diego State, let alone in the NBA.

His 29 points were the most he’d scored since high school.

In the last eight years, the only other players to score so much in a Finals game are LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Paul Pierce and Tony Parker – each multiple-time All-Stars.

Leonard has yet to receive that recognition even once, but if he keeps scoring like this, his contributions will be impossible to ignore.

He aggressively drove to the hoop and made open shots from beyond the arc, requiring just 13 shots to score his 29 points. And he still had enough energy left to defend LeBron, who spent just 64 seconds on the court without Leonard.

There are only so many two-way stars in the league, and Leonard is building his case for a seat at the table as his offense catches up to his defense.

The difference between Leonard and Paul George – a two-time All-NBA third teamer, recipient of a max contract and unquestioned best player on a team that has made consecutive conference finals – is not as great as it appears at first glance. Leonard, a year younger than George, has time to make up whatever difference exists.

Leonard used another one of those two-way stars to help find his way after struggling earlier this series.

“LeBron is very aggressive on the offensive end and defensive end,” Leonard said on ESPN. “So, just trying to match his intensity and trying keep my energy up and just staying hydrated throughout the game.”

That’s a nice subtle jab from a member of the Spurs, an organization paranoid about surrendering any competitive advantage. Maybe Leonard should know better – even if that was an unintended reference to LeBron’s cramps – because anything might motivate LeBron. But Leonard is still just 22 and learning the ropes.

Even if he doesn’t play like it.

For the second straight year, Leonard is the youngest player by four years in the Finals. Last season, he excelled, averaging a double-double. In his return to basketball’s biggest stage, Leonard took a bit longer to get going, but he made up for lost time in Game 3. Since at least 1985, only Kobe Bryant has scored so many points in a Finals game at such a young age.

Constantly, Leonard is evolving.

“He’s got to be one of our better players on the court, or we’re not good enough,” Popovich said. “That’s just the way it is. He’s got that kind of talent.”

That’s no longer a forecast of a distant future.

It’s the reality of the present.

Victor Oladipo’s practice dunk better than anything he – or maybe anyone – did in dunk contest (video)

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Victor Oladipo has grown into far more than just a dunker.

In fact, in Saturday’s dunk contest, he didn’t look like a dunker at all.

The Pacers star missed all three attempts of his first dunk, and a Black Panther mask was by far the biggest draw of his second. Oladipo was eliminated after the first round.

Maybe Dennis Smith Jr. wasn’t the only eliminated dunker who left something in his bag. This Oladipo dunk – 180 degrees, throwing ball off the backboard with his left hand while in mid-air, dunking with his right hand – while preparing in Los Angeles was awesome.

Larry Nance Jr. had the contest’s best dunk. This would have rivaled it.

Pelicans owner Tom Benson hospitalized with flu symptoms

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — New Orleans Saints and Pelicans Owner Tom Benson has been hospitalized with flu symptoms.

A statement released Wednesday by the NFL and NBA clubs says their 90-year-old owner is resting comfortably at Ochsner Medical Center, a hospital which also serves as a major sponsor and which owns naming rights to the teams’ training headquarters.

Benson has owned the New Orleans Saints since 1985 and bought the New Orleans Pelicans in 2012.

In recent years, Benson has overhauled his estate plan so that his third wife, Gayle, would be first in line to inherit control of the two major professional franchises.

 

Report: Seattle hosting Kings-Warriors preseason game

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Kevin Durant spent his rookie season in Seattle, before the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. He has said Seattle fans deserved to see him grow up in the NBA after supporting his promising start.

They’ll get their chance.

Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee:

The Kings and Golden State Warriors have scheduled a preseason game next season in Seattle, according to multiple league sources.

The Oct. 6 meeting between Northern California teams will be the first NBA game in the Key Arena since the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season and became the Thunder.

This game will be loaded with storylines. Not only Durant, but the Kings considered moving to Seattle a few years ago. And of course, the return of NBA basketball to Seattle.

At some point, Seattle will get its own team again. For now, this preseason game creates intrigue there.

Report: Kawhi Leonard cleared medically, seeking second opinion

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again this season, a stark reversal from just a month ago. Back then, even while announcing Leonard was out indefinitely with a quad injury, the San Antonio coach said Leonard wouldn’t miss the rest of the season.

What’s going on?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

After spending 10 days before the All-Star break in New York consulting with a specialist to gather a second opinion on his right quad injury, All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard bears the burden of determining when he’s prepared to play again, sources told ESPN.

Leonard has been medically cleared to return from the right quad tendinopathy injury, but since shutting down a nine-game return to the Spurs that ended Jan. 13, he has elected against returning to the active roster, sources said.

The uncertainty surrounding this season — and Leonard’s future which could include free agency in the summer of 2019 — has inspired a palpable stress around the organization, league sources said.

At first glance, this sounds like Derrick Rose five years ago. Even after he was cleared to play following a torn ACL, the then-Bulls star remained mysterious about when he’d suit up. His confidence in his physical abilities seemed to be a major issue, and he was never the same player since (suffering more leg injuries).

But the Spurs famously favor resting players to preserve long-term health. They seem unlikely to rush back Leonard. They might even sit players who want to play more often. And Leonard isn’t Rose.

Still, it’s clear something is amiss in San Antonio. Maybe not amiss enough to end Leonard’s tenure there, but the longer this lingers, the more time for tension to percolate.