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.

No motivational material: LeBron James, Cavaliers respectful when asked about Warriors

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The rubber match. The trilogy. Whatever you want to call the historic third meeting between the Cavaliers and Warriors in the Finals — never in NBA history have two teams met three years in a row in the Finals — it’s what fans have been waiting for. The inevitability of this Finals matchup sucked some of the drama and fun out of the postseason so far, but now these two teams are ready to go.

It’s the best rivalry in the NBA, two teams not afraid to mix it up with each other, but when Cavaliers players were asked about the Warriors after eliminating the Celtics Thursday night, there was nothing but respect.

“We just got to play defense,” LeBron James said in a televised postgame interview. “We’re going to face adversity. That’s been the best team in our league the last three years, and they added an unbelievable player in Kevin Durant this year, so that makes it even more difficult. So they’re gonna challenge us a lot: offensively, defensively, mentally, physically, but we’re going to have to be ready for that challenge.”

LeBron stuck to that theme in his postgame press conference.

“I’ll be honest, I’m not really in the right mind to even talk about Golden State right now. It’s too stressful, and I’m not stressed right now,” LeBron said cracking a smile. “Golden State, they’ve been the best team in our league the last three years, then they added an MVP. That’s all I can give you right now, because I’m happy and I don’t want a lot of stress, and they cause a lot of stress.”

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said he had yet to start any prep for the Warriors.

“Of course I watch every game, because I’m a basketball junkie, and they’ve been playing great,” Lue siad. “But you can’t get too far ahead of yourself.”

“The Celtics and Brad Stevens, the team they have, they throw a lot of different lineups at you and a lot of different stuff on the offensive end, so as far as how they play I think it definitely prepared us for what’s ahead,” Kevin Love said, discussing how the Celtics prepped the Cavaliers for the next round.

The Cavaliers are veterans on this stage, and they both respect the Warriors and don’t need the distraction of a war of words, so they stayed on message all night.

But with a week to go before Game 1, you can bet someone will say something inflammatory. We’re looking at you, Draymond Green.

Watch 36-year-old James Jones throw down a putback dunk vs. the Celtics (VIDEO)

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LeBron James is on his way to his 7th-straight Finals after the Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics, 135-102, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday night.

The game was out of hand from the beginning, with the Cavaliers scoring a franchise playoff high 75 points in the first half.

At one point in the fourth quarter, Tyronn Lue emptied out his bench and we got to see some of the Cavaliers garbage time guys get run. One of those guys was James Jones, 36, who has been around so long he was a rookie with Reggie Miller in Indiana.

He also dunked!

Via Twitter:

Let’s all just bask in the glory that is that putback dunk and in our little vacation until the Finals start on June 1.

LeBron James, Cavaliers advance past Celtics to meet Warriors in 2017 NBA Finals

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Let’s line it up and run it again. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are going to meet in the 2017 NBA Finals after LeBron James and the Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics in Game 5 on Thursday, 135-102.

It wasn’t much of a contest from the outset as Cleveland looked determined to put away their opponent. The Cavaliers played strong, shot well from 3-point range, and forced the Celtics into 18 turnovers over the course of the game.

The Cavaliers set a franchise playoff record in the first half, scoring 75 points in the first two periods. LeBron had 20 before the third quarter started, putting him just inches away from passing Michael Jordan to top the list for most points scored in NBA playoff history.

That moment came in the third quarter, with James dropping in a sweet 3-pointer from the left side of the arc to push him past Jordan. LeBron finished the game with 35 points, going 4-of-7 from 3-point range will adding eight assists, eight rebounds, and three steals.

Kyrie Irving was another bright spot for the Cavaliers, scoring 24 points to go along with seven assists. Kevin Love added 15 points, and Deron Williams had a rejuvenation off the bench with 14.

For Boston, yet another game without Isaiah Thomas forced their offense into stagnation. Avery Bradley — who had a considerable series in an effort that should not be overlooked — scored 20 points on 10-of-20 shooting. Gerald Green was Boston’s second-leading scorer in a bench role, adding 14 points.

Now we get to wait until June 1, when what seemed an inevitability way back in training camp has indeed come to pass. The Warriors get their shot at redemption after the worst breakdown in NBA playoff history, and the Cavaliers get a chance to solidify themselves over their peers and galvanize LeBron’s position as the best player of a generation.

The Finals don’t start for anther week. We’ll all be champing at the bit to see if Cleveland really does have what it takes to guard the Warriors offense. Likewise, a top defensive team in Golden State will need to prepare themselves for the LeBron that showed up against the Celtics in Game 1 and 2.

LeBron James on passing Michael Jordan: “I fell in love with the game because of Mike” (VIDEO)

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LeBron James passed Michael Jordan for most points scored in NBA playoff history on Thursday night during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ win over the Boston Celtics, 135-102.

After the game, LeBron and his teammates took to the podium to speak on their accomplishment of making it to yet another Finals as they settle in for a rematch with the Golden State Warriors.

LeBron was humble about his accomplishment, crediting Jordan for driving him to play the game of basketball as well as shaping his own game.

“I wear the number [23] because of Mike. I think I fell in love with the game because of Mike,” said James. “When you’re growing up and you’re seeing Michael Jordan, it’s almost like a god.”

James and the Cavaliers will take on the Warriors in Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals on June 1.