The question that no one asked when the San Antonio Spurs met the Oklahoma City Thunder was “who was going to guard Kawhi Leonard?” and we saw that question played a huge part in the series in six games in San Antonio’s favor.
The Spurs showed they were a different machine this season unlike what the Thunder saw during the 2012 playoffs where Oklahoma City defeated the Spurs by winning four straight games after the silver and black went up 2-0. Leonard averaged 11.8ppg in the Western Conference Finals and that played a huge part in Kevin Durant spending energy on the defensive end. With a short rotation by the majority of the playoff teams, this was a huge factor in San Antonio’s favor with a deep bench as they showed in Game 6.
Now that the Spurs advanced to the NBA Finals, the question has to be asked this round also.:
Who on the Miami Heat is going to take the task into guarding Kawhi Leonard?
The answer may play a huge part in whether the Heat defeat the Spurs again in the Finals and cap off a memorable dynasty. This is actually a bigger dilemma for the Heat than the Thunder. As we saw last round, Durant lost a lot of energy working both ends of the floor. The problem for Miami in this instance is that if the likely answer on who will be guarding him is the obvious one, it might make them more vulnerable than the Oklahoma City were.
The obvious answer here might be LeBron James, Miami’s best overall defender and former league MVP, taking the task of slowing down the Spurs’ up and coming star small forward. While it might argued that James has taken the task of guarding the best players from the opposing team before (Paul George of the Indiana Pacers last round is a good example), the Spurs are a different beast than the Pacers.
Last season switched on guarding Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard depending on who was on the floor for the Spurs. The difference this season is a more aggressive Leonard looking for his shot at the three point line or on a drive. While Tony Parker’s health will be a key question for the Spurs, it’s good to remember Parker played on a bad hamstring last season and a “sore” ankle may not hold him back as the hamstring did.
James won’t have that few minutes of rest with the starting lineup like he did before without costing the team a few fouls or points along the way. Eric Spoelstra may opt him to guard Leonard and he will look to wear him out like he did Durant or move James to guard Parker. The problem with guarding Parker is now Leonard has a great opportunity to wear out Dwayne Wade in the post or easily shoot over Mario Chalmers. The deeper bench this season for San Antonio will definitely play a huge disadvantage for LeBron if it gives Leonard minutes to rest while he has to carry the team against the likes of Manu Ginobili, Marco Belinelli, and Boris Diaw. Those three are expected to have a huge series against the slower bench of Miami. The huge problem the Heat face is that James is their main option in every aspect of the game with the exception of blocks (which goes to Chris Bosh at 1.3bpg this postseason). James is the Heat’s main option in points (27.1ppg), rebounds (6.8apg), assists (5apg), and steals (1.8spg). Gregg Popovich has leaned toward letting Leonard guard his opposing player one on one with minimal to no help and that has to be the worst nightmare for the Heat if James has to contribute on both ends of the floor. If that happens, LeBron’s contributions now become minimal and the team will depend on one dimensional players to try to do more than they actually can.
Who will guard Kawhi Leonard? The Heat need to ask themselves that question going into the NBA Finals. If the last round is any indication, LeBron James taking that responsbility may be a huge mistake if it means spending energy on both ends of the floor against Leonard and not getting rest against the Spurs’ bench.