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.

Zach LaVine on meeting with Bulls coach Jim Boylen: ‘This is a business. This isn’t a dictatorship’

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Tension between new Bulls coach Jim Boylen and his players boiled over Sunday. When Boylen called for a practice the day after a back-to-back, some players threatened to boycott. They ultimately compromised on a team meeting.

So, guard Zach LaVine met individually with Boylen.

LaVine, via Malika Andrews and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

“You just want to be real with people,” LaVine told ESPN. “There shouldn’t be any clouds. I think of myself as one of the leaders on the team. I just wanted to voice my opinion to them.”

“This is a business, this isn’t a dictatorship. We are all grown men, so everybody has a voice.”

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

Boylen, via Mark Strotman of NBC Sports Chicago:

“We had a situation over the weekend that could have been handled by a leadership group walking into my office and saying, ‘You know what, Coach? This is how we feel today. What do you think?’ That was the teaching moment,” Boylen said. “I’m juiced, man. I’m jacked up about it.”

A leadership committee sounds like the type of thing college teams have – which makes sense, because Boylen is treating the Bulls like a college team. Frequent and long practices. Harsh public criticism. Five-man substitutions. These are not normal power dynamics in the NBA.

Chicago players are already running thin on patience for Boylen. But he has plenty of job security. So, hopefully for everyone involved, he has learned as much as he indicates. He can’t keep coaching like this without inciting a mutiny.

Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson out 2-4 weeks

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Tristan Thompson has been one of the biggest bright spots in an otherwise miserable Cavaliers season. The center is averaging 12.0 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. He has also taken on more leadership.

And now he’s out.

Cavaliers release:

Cavaliers forward/center Tristan Thompson will miss approximately 2-4 weeks with a left foot sprain. Thompson was injured in last night’s road game at Milwaukee late in the third quarter

This will help Cleveland improve its draft position, though it’s not as if Cleveland (6-21) was having much issue losing even with Thompson.

At least the Cavs have plenty of options at center. Expect Larry Nance Jr. to take a larger role. Ante Zizic likely joins the rotation. Cleveland could dust off Channing Frye. Kevin Love might return before Thompson.

Magic suspended Mohamed Bamba for being late to walk-through

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Seven of the top eight picks in the 2018 NBA draft are scoring double-digit points per game.

The exception: Magic center Mohamed Bamba.

Bamba certainly hasn’t been bad. He’s just acclimating to the NBA at a more common rate than peers like Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Deandre Ayton. This is an exceptionally good rookie class.

But this won’t help Bamba catch up. He missed Orlando’s 101-76 loss to the Mavericks last night.

Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel:

Bamba, who was suspended for a game for being late for the team walk-through at the hotel in Dallas on Monday

“It was a violation of team rules,” Clifford said. “It’s just a one-game thing. Mo will play again on Thursday, but that’s what it was.”

“It’s just bad on my part and I just need to be better … just gotta be on time,” Bamba said. “It’s very difficult because you want to be out there and impact the game in any way possible and hope for a different outcome.”

I doubt Magic coach Steve Clifford suspended Bamba for a single instance of tardiness. This was likely a culmination.

Orlando (12-15) is eighth in the Eastern Conference, in the thick of the playoff race. If the Magic are going to take advantage of the low bar for making the postseason, they need all hands on deck – including Bamba.

Lonzo Ball bypasses open layup for no-look backward bounce pass, leaves Luke Walton staring into abyss

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Lonzo Ball missed a layup early last night. That might have made him overthink later, when he was ahead of the pack on another fastbreak. Instead of shooting the open layup, Ball bounced the ball behind him without looking, leading to a turnover and open Heat 3-pointer.

On the bright side for the Lakers, they still beat Miami.

On the bright side for us, we got this great Luke Walton reaction GIF:

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