There was a time when it seemed that the enduring image of Kawhi Leonard would be a missed free throw in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. And why wouldn't it? It left the door open to the most dramatic, mind-blowing, oh-my-God-that-has-never-happened-and-will-never-happen-again shot in NBA playoff history. Shuttlesworth's signature moment. Leonard's eternal shame. The basketball gods had decreed that Kawhi Leonard would join the Nick Anderson/Frank Selvy club of famous Finals chokers.
But then a funny thing happened; he flipped the script. As a New Englander, when Aaron Boone hit the ALCS-winning home run against the Sox in 2003, there was the assumption that Sox Nation would be haunted by it for decades to come, a la Bucky Dent and Bill Buckner. Instead, just one year later, revenge was a dish served boiling hot with a six-pack of Sammy Adams. So it was with Leonard and the Spurs. The flat out ass-whipping they administered to the Heat not only purged the memory of Game 6 forever, but it made the Spurs the story of the era, how they had prolonged their greatness well into the twilight years of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili. And for Leonard, it was pure, undeniable redemption.
The lasting image of Leonard has become, for me at least, Adam Silver announcing that the 22-year-old had been named NBA MVP:
Stuart Scott (RIP): "Here to present the Larry O'Brien trophy for Finals MVP, is Commissioner Adam Silver."
Silver: "Kawhi Leonard" (He is forced to pause as the San Antonio crowd explodes) "The city of San Antonio knows how great you are and now the whole world knows."
Watch the video. The entire Spurs team reacts like you've never seen a team react on the podium. Their smiles are ear-to-ear and they grab Leonard in one massive fundamentally-sound bearhug as Leonard, silent and stoic throughout the series (if not since birth), howls with joy. There really is nothing like it.
Since that moment, Leonard has been on the rise. He seemingly gets better every game. He has gone from unlikely hero to NBA superstar this season. If not for an early injury this season he'd have made his first All-Star game. His stats, particularly on the offensive end, have improved and he has developed into what every Spurs hater has feared for years: a dynamic, multi-threat wing scorer. The Spurs have never had this. Closest to that would be Sean Elliot back in the 90s and he didn't attack the rim like Leonard.
At the same time, oh yeah, he's the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Say what you want to about the voting (Draymond Green got more first-place votes but Leonard won on total points, meaning that way more people picked him second or third than they did Green), but I say the voters picked the right man. His defensive efficiency is first in the league, he led the NBA in steals per game, and he is capable of guarding the 1-4 slots. He is a game-changing, havoc-wreaking defender and serves as a wild-card for the Spurs defensive schemes.
Just last night (I write this the morning after Game 5 of an AWESOME Spurs-Clippers series) he hounded JJ Redick around screens, minimizing his impact, stepped up to neutralize Jamal Crawford, and played in isolation several times against Chris Paul, preventing him from taking over at critical moments. And, despite this being by far his worst game of the series, he pulled down the game-winning offensive rebound and finished with 18 and 9.
Barring a truly remarkable turnaround by the Clippers, the Spurs are going to win the series and move on to face Houston. If that happens, I pray that we see Leonard check James Harden for long stretches of the game. Just too good of a matchup to miss. But if the Spurs advance, let's recognize the reason for it. With Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili clearly hobbled by a variety of small injuries, and Tiago Splitter utterly spent, the Spurs are on the verge of eliminating a Clipper team that 1) Had homecourt advantage over the Spurs, 2) Has Blake Griffin playing the best basketball of his career and Chris Paul doing Chris Paul things, and 3) Is playing the best defensive basketball it has at any point in the Paul-Griffin era. The reason for it is Leonard catching fire offensively. His 32 pt, 13-18 Game 3 was a flat-out masterclass and he still anchored a defense that held the explosive Clipper offense to 73 pts.
For the last few years, the question regarding San Antonio has been when will Kawhi Leonard take the reins from the likes of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili. The answer is that he already has. He just did it in classic Kawhi Leonard style: quietly.