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

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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.

James Harden helped recruit Lou Williams to Houston

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The Lakers had been shopping Lou Williams around in the run-up to the trade deadline, the only question was would they get a first-round pick for him. Rumors around the league say that Houston had offered them one weeks before, it was on the table, but the Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak front office held their cards close and hoped a better deal would come through.

While all that was going on James Harden decided to ease the process and did a little recruiting calling up Williams, the sixth-man guard told Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“When James called, he asked me if I was interested in playing with them,” Williams told The Vertical. “I told him that I loved the Lakers, but James and them have a group that fit my personality, fit how I play. He said he was going to make it happen.”

Williams then laughed, sitting on the edge of a visiting court following a recent practice. “I’ve heard that before, so I didn’t really put stock into it,” Williams told The Vertical. “I guess James did put the word in, and the team made it happen.”

We all know what happened, Jeanie Buss removed her brother and Kupchak a few days before the trade deadline, Magic Johnston stepped in, called around, and quickly pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Williams to Houston (the Lakers also got Corey Brewer). Williams has averaged 14.5 points per game and had some strong performances with the Rockets, although he’s still finding his groove with the team on the court. Still, he’s been an upgrade for the Rockets’ bench.

Harden knew he would be, so he did his part to make sure it happened.

Take a look back at just how great Shaq was with the Lakers (VIDEO)

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Shaquille O’Neal was as dominant a force as the NBA has ever seen.

His peak years came with the Lakers, when paired with Kobe Bryant one the court — and Phil Jackson manipulating both of them — they won three titles (and arguably would have had more if they stayed together). Those Lakers teams were one of the NBA’s great teams.

Friday night, the Lakers unveil Shaq’s statue at Staples Center. Take a look back at some of Shaq’s Lakers highlights.

 

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”