2014 NBA Finals - Game Three

Kawhi Leonard showcases next dimension in quest to lead Spurs


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.

Mike Budenholzer smirks at lawyer calling Thabo Sefolosha ‘NBA superstar’

Mike Budenholzer, Thabo Sefolosha
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The funny part, via Robert Silverman:

The substantive part:

NEW YORK (AP) — NBA player Thabo Sefolosha, who was arrested outside a New York City nightclub in April following a confrontation with police officer, has a character “of the highest order,” his head coach, Mike Budenholzer, testified Thursday.

Taking the stand as the final defense witness in Sefolosha’s trial, Budenholzer described the Atlanta Hawks guard-forward as “highly intelligent” and a “hard worker.”

When asked by defense attorney Alex Spiro to describe his character, he said it was, “of the highest order.”

“Thabo is of the highest character,” he said during brief testimony in Manhattan Criminal Court.

The Swiss national is charged with misdemeanor obstructing government administration, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest charges stemming from a confrontation with officers outside a trendy Manhattan nightclub early in the morning on April 8. He has pleaded not guilty.

Officers testified this week that Sefolosha and former teammate Pero Antic repeatedly disobeyed their orders to move off the block and away from a crime scene that had been established following the earlier stabbing of another NBA player, Chris Copeland, and two women.

One of the officers also said Sefolosha lunged at an officer with his arm extended but was intercepted before making contact, eventually taken to the ground and arrested.

Sefolosha has testified that he was complying with orders and moving up the block as a particularly aggressive officer screamed profanities at him.

His attorney has argued that his client was singled out by the officer, who is white, because Sefolosha is black.

Sefolosha testified Thursday that he was trying to give money to a panhandler before entering an awaiting car when he was grabbed by police. He said his leg was kicked in the scuffle and he was taken to the ground, handcuffed and hauled to a police precinct. He suffered a fractured right leg, which forced him to miss the playoffs.

The case is the second one involving high-profile athletes accusing New York Police Department officers of wrongdoing this year. On Wednesday, the city agency charged with investigating police misconduct substantiated claims by former tennis star James Blake that an officer used excessive force when he took him to the ground last month after mistkaing Blake for a fraud suspect.

As expected, Jimmy Butler says no issue between him, Derrick Rose

Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler
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Is the Derrick Rose/Jimmy Butler relationship nothing but puppy dogs and rainbows? No. There will be sparks between two intense competitors.

Have those sparks started a fire Bulls fans should be concerned about? A report on Wednesday said the core problem was Butler doesn’t respect Rose’s work ethic, which provided some kindling for that spark to catch.

However, as you would expect, Butler said this was all much ado about nothing, that he and Rose are all good. Via K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

Spin this however you wish: Their relationship is fine and someone in the media is making this up; or their relationship has been rough, and this is all just leaking out now.

This is a Bulls team in a bit of a transition as Rose declines some and Butler has grown into a top-flight player. Clearly that dynamic has some people around the team — likely the people in one of one of the players’ camps doesn’t like the power struggle or where it leaves his buddy — talking out of school to the press.

But as Butler noted, winning cures all ills. If Chicago can get off to a fast start, nobody will be asking chemistry questions.

For now, however, tounges are wagging.