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.

From Kyrie Irving to Jae Crowder, no love lost between Celtics and Cavs

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The first night of the NBA is here. Now you can stop pretending that you are going to win your NFL fantasy league and pay attention to something important.

Tuesday night’s opening matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics was of course one of intrigue for many reasons. The teams have new rosters after a trade involving Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas, and Jae Crowder, just to name a few.

The NBA likes to open its seasons with matchups like this, and the crowd at The Q in Cleveland did not disappoint when they saw Irving once more.

There did not appear to be bad blood on the court between LeBron James and Irving, and the two exchanged a friendly fist bump as is customary before the tip.

Via Instagram:

Of course, Cavaliers fans did not hold back once the Celtics won the tip off and Kyrie handled the ball for the first time.

There was also myriad technical fouls, including one on Irving after a timeout and one on Al Horford for clapping at Crowder. The latter gave us this gem:

Is an absolute bummer that the Celtics will be without Gordon Hayward as he recovers from a broken left ankle. But, at least there will be some bad blood remaining between these teams to entertain us over the course of the regular season.

NBA rallies for Gordon Hayward on social media after broken ankle

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Everyone has been waiting for the start of the NBA season, but nobody wanted it to start this way.

During Tuesday’s opening game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward suffered a horrific injury after cutting back door.

Hayward suffered a broken left ankle according to the team. Meanwhile, if you want to see video of the injury, you can do so here.

Of course, everyone was waiting in anticipation for Tuesday, including players and not hooping. There was immediate reaction by other NBA players on social media wishing Hayward a speedy recovery.

Via Twitter:

Gordon Hayward breaks left ankle against Cavs in first game with Celtics

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The Boston Celtics season has taken a turn for the worse.

During Tuesday’s opening game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, new Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward broke his left ankle after landing following a leaping back cut to the basket.

It became immediately apparent to those in the arena, and the broadcast angle of the left leg injury was not pretty.

Just be warned here, the resulting photo and media is pretty disgusting. I let out a big yell when I saw it live, so it’s not for the faint of heart.

Via TNT:

This is just the most awful way to start the NBA season, for all of us. Get well soon, Gordon.

Kings’ rookie De’Aaron Fox commits California mortal sin, slams In-N-Out

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We Californians take a few things seriously. Surf reports, for one. Winemaking/tasting. Tech toys. Coming up with potential blockbuster movie franchise ideas, getting a star to buy in, then maybe or maybe not worrying about getting a decent script.

Also, In-N-Out Burger. If there is one thing all Californians can agree on, it’s that In-N-Out is the best burger chain in the world. It’s not up for debate.

Apparently Kings’ rookie De'Aaron Fox did not get that memo. He did a Q&A with Rolling Stone’s Seerat Sohi and crossed a sacred line.

“All I gotta say, you can tell everybody that lives in the state of California this: In-N-Out is not good.”

What’s your beef with In-N-Out Burger?
“Their burgers are overrated. They’re OK.”

Even Animal Style?
“Yes. People always say, you haven’t tried this. You haven’t tried that. I’m like, “Yeah, I looked up the secret menu. I’ve tried it all. It’s just not good.”

That’s controversial. What’s the best fast food spot then?
“Honestly, for me, I don’t count Chick-fil-A, because it’s way too good to be considered fast food. So I’m gonna say Wendy’s. Fat Burger in L.A. is better than In-N-Out.”

It’s this simple: Fox is flat-out wrong.

First off, Chick-fil-A is wildly overrated, so we know the taste of the 19-year-old point guard is off. Fat Burger is legit. But Wendy’s? Come on now, that’s just average.

If Fox had tried to argue Five Guys, I would have let it slide — I don’t think they’re as good, but I will admit a California bias. But Wendy’s? You lose the entire argument right there. It’s like saying Pixels was the best movie ever.

In-N-Out is the best. Fox needs to get on board with this.