In the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game against the Miami Heat, Kawhi Leonard took an elbow to the face that drew blood. Leonard barely flinched, and it’s possible that he did not even sense that damage was done to the living tissue that covers his metal endoskeleton. He had to leave the 84-81 game to get it patched up, and by the time he returned, Miami had their first lead since 3-2. He came back with a band-aid on his cheek like Nelly in 2002, and busted loose for 14 points en route to securing another win for the San Antonio Spurs.
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— Tom Petrini (@RealTomPetrini) October 31, 2016
Compared to the first three games of the season, Leonard had been quiet with 13 points through his first 23 minutes. Kawhi looked energized when he came back in with 6:48 left, and he closed the game with surgical offensive precision and excellent defense. He scored the final 12 points for San Antonio, including 8-of-8 shooting from the free throw line. Leonard made all the right plays down the stretch in this close game, and he did it without the help of LaMarcus Aldridge who rested on the second night of a back-to-back that involved travel.
The feeling around the team is that Kawhi is ready to take the reins, and the first four games of the season have all but confirmed that. Leonard dominated the season opener in Oracle Arena, putting up a career high 35 points to go with 5 rebounds, 5 steals and 3 assists. Every night he runs the San Antonio offense and creates open shots for himself and for teammates, in addition to playing suffocating defense against his man and anything within a 12-foot radius.
Kawhi’s usage rate is up to 34% through the first four games, up there with ball dominant players like Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and James Harden. Efficiency should theoretically go down as usage goes up, but Leonard cares not for such theories. Of players who use more than 30% of their team’s offensive possessions, Kawhi has the second best true shooting percentage and the best net rating. Neither is a perfect statistic, but they both point to Leonard’s efficiency and overall impact on the game.
In addition to his lockdown defense, Leonard has also become one of the league’s best at attacking with the ball in his hands. He can score or get to the free throw line by driving and posting up in isolation, and now he’s initiating the pick-and-roll with guys like Aldridge and Pau Gasol. It’s a scary proposition for opposing defenses, and often times the only way to prevent a wide open look is by fouling and sending him to the line where he is incredibly efficient.
If he continues to drive San Antonio’s success on both ends of the floor, he will be in contention for his 3rd consecutive Defensive Player of the Year and possibly an MVP award. He was second to the unanimous Stephen Curry last year, and now he’s poised to take a bigger role while Steph’s will presumably shrink while sharing the floor with Kevin Durant. Those three will likely compete for MVP honors this year, along with guys like Russell Westbrook, James Harden and LeBron James.
Leonard doesn’t care about any of this, of course. He is laser focused on becoming the best basketball player he can be and helping his team win championships. That’s what has made him one of the great players in the NBA today, and it’s why the Spurs have invested so much in the 25 year old. In the post-Tim Duncan era, the future of the franchise is in Kawhi’s enormous and capable hands. He seems completely ready for that responsibility.