Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan

Kawhi Leonard’s continued evolution shapes Spurs’ present and future


Kawhi Leonard, a white towel and gray shirt wrapped around his neck, stared down without making eye contact.

“I couldn’t be more proud of you,” Gregg Popovich told him. “You made some shots, and you played good D. But you competed – 50/50 balls, being active, the whole deal.”

Leonard might detest the spotlight – even a one-on-one moment with his coach during Game 4 seemed like too much attention for him – but he can’t escape it.

For the second straight game, Leonard was the Spurs’ best player. In San Antonio’s 107-86 Game 4 win over the Heat on Thursday, he scored 20 points and grabbed 14 rebounds – another NBA Finals double-double for the 22-year-old.

Leonard now has five of the nine youngest double-doubles in the NBA Finals since 1985 with Kobe Bryant and LeBron James taking the rest. Pretty elite company.

Does Leonard belong?

He scored 29 points in Game 3, his highest-scoring game since high school, and defended relatively well. He looked like Paul George.

But, unlike Popovich, most observers didn’t believe.

They said it was a fluke. They said Miami hadn’t prepared for him. They said the San Antonio’s better players got him open.

“I’m just a ballplayer,” he said.

Leonard is a quiet presence who fits perfectly with the Spurs. Even when leading San Antonio in scoring in back-to-back games, he deflects publicity.

Unlike his scoring outburst in Game 3, Leonard showed his more-typical all-around game Thursday. Few in the NBA can match him across all four levels of the floor – inside and outside, offensively and defensively.

Leonard can make a spot-up 3-pointer over LeBron on one possession and do this on another. Only LeBron, George and Kevin Durant top Leonard in games this postseason with both a 3-pointer and dunk (nine).

On the other end, Leonard got three steals and blocked three shots. Miami shot just 39 percent and turned the ball over 11 times with him on the court.

In all facets, Leonard made his presence felt.

“He’s going to be unbelievable,” Tim Duncan said

Leonard’s overall stat line – 20 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, three steals, three blocks – is unmatched in the calendar year.

Last time someone did it in the playoffs? Duncan in 2008.

Last time someone did it in the Finals? Duncan in 2003.

At some point, Duncan will retire, and the Spurs could become Leonard’s. He’s not yet good enough to carry a team, but he might never need to fill that role. Leonard is so versatile, he’ll give Popovich and R.C. Buford plenty of flexibility for assembling a team around him.

For now, Leonard is happily excelling in his current position – one game from his first championship. I have a feeling Leonard is in store for many firsts in the coming years, though craving attention probably won’t be one of them.

Gallinari ready to take big role in new Nuggets offense

Danilo Gallinari, Jimmy Butler
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DENVER (AP) — Danilo Gallinari wants everyone to know this: His surgically repaired left knee, the one that took three procedures to fix and nearly two seasons to fully trust, no longer bothers him.

The Denver Nuggets forward doesn’t need to be on any sort of minutes restriction. He doesn’t need days off during the season. And he certainly doesn’t need to be coddled.

He’s Gallo again, the hard-to-guard Italian playmaker who can knock down the 3-pointer just as easily as drive to the hoop or even post up. He believes he will fit in quite nicely into new coach Michael Malone’s system.

“The thing I’m focused on is trying to get (this team) back to the same level that the Nuggets were when I got to Denver, when we were going to the playoffs easy. When we were clinching a playoff one or two weeks before the season was over,” said Gallinari, who was acquired in the 2011 blockbuster deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks. “We need to get back to that level.”

Almost seems so long ago, given that the Nuggets have missed the playoffs two straight seasons after consistently making it for nearly a decade.

Gallinari returned last season for the first time since blowing out his knee in a game on April 4, 2013. His minutes were closely monitored early in the season. He never really got completely on track until late last season, when he averaged 20.5 points over the final 10 contests, including a career-high 47 against Dallas. He’s hoping to carry that kind of confidence this season.

“I’m good to go. I was good to go as soon as the beginning of last year,” Gallinari said. “I was not on the same page with the coach that we had.”

That would be Brian Shaw, who was fired last March after 1 1/2 seasons in charge and going 56-85. Exactly why he wasn’t on the same page with Shaw, well, Gallinari preferred the past remain the past.

“I’m ready to play the new season,” he said. “We need to win games, and get back to the same level we were before.”

Gallinari thinks the Nuggets have the personnel to do just that, especially with a rookie point guard in Emmanuel Mudiay and Gallinari’s knee feeling better than it has in a while. He feels like he has some ground to make up, too, since he said that knee robbed him of some of his prime.

“Playing my best basketball right before I got injured,” the 27-year old said. “Now, we’re back to the same level, hopefully better.

“My knee has been feeling great. It felt great last year. Feeling great during the summer. Feeling great now. I just feel good.”

He spent the summer playing for the Italian team at the EuroBasket tournament, where he averaged nearly 18 points a game. In those games, Gallinari saw quite a bit of time at the four spot on the floor, forcing teams to either use a bulkier big man to cover him and risk getting burned on a drive or a smaller player that Gallinari could simply shoot over.

Malone plans to employ a similar type approach, something they discussed over gelato when the coach visited Gallinari in Italy soon after he was hired.

“He’s 6-foot-10. He can handle the ball. He can play pick-and-roll. He can stretch the floor and shoot the 3,” Malone said. “There’s not a lot he can’t do offensively.”

Gallinari wants the responsibility of being the go-to player for the Nuggets this season, especially at crunch time.

“I’ve always been trying to do that, since I came to Denver,” Gallinari said. “That’s what I like to do. I feel good filling those shoes.

“I want to have the ball in my hands. I do want to have the ball in my hands a lot more.”

Knicks’ Rookie Jerian Grant gets up, throws it down (VIDEO)

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The Knicks did well trading for Jerian Grant on date night — he’s going to be able to walk in this year and play quality minutes off the bench.

And, he can get up and throw it down.

Carmelo Anthony had 18 points to lead the Knicks to a 94-88 win over the Sixers.