AT&T CENTER – The San Antonio Spurs currently own the NBA’s longest winning streak, as the Spurs have won eight games in a row. When it comes to the Spurs’ last four wins, however, San Antonio has faced adversity, as they’ve trailed by 9, 8, 16 and 16 points in that order against the Indiana Pacers, New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves, and Houston Rockets.
For the Spurs to overcome these odds, not only did they have to buckle down on their league best defense to get them clawing back in the game, but when crunch time came, they relied on their go-to scorer in Kawhi Leonard, who made notable scoring plays, but also key defensive plays as well in those games.
Leonard is in the discussion for the league’s MVP award, along with James Harden of the Rockets, Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers. While the other three candidates might have better base stats than Leonard (points, rebounds, assists), Leonard can add the argument that not only is he a Top-10 scorer like the others, but he makes a significant impact on the defensive end of the floor night after night.
Monday’s comeback win against the Rockets was a perfect display of Leonard’s demonstrative effort on both ends of the floor. With the Spurs trailing 108-107 with 39.7 seconds left in the game, Leonard went around a screen and drilled a pull-up 3-pointer to give the Spurs a 110-107 lead with 25.4 seconds left. With Harden driving down the floor on the next possession, Leonard was the help defender and he pinned Harden’s layup attempt to the backboard, then Leonard grabbed the rebound and made two clutch free throws to seal the game for San Antonio.
In the last six minutes of the game, the Spurs outscored the Rockets 19-12. Leonard scored 15 of the Spurs’ 19 points during that stretch on just five shot attempts (3/5 FG), but his seven made three throws were also quite meaningful. Per NBA.com, Leonard is tied for third in fourth quarter scoring with Kyle Lowry, as they’re both scoring 7.8 points per fourth quarter. Leonard only trails the Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas (10.3 points) and Westbrook (9.5 points) in fourth quarter scoring.
When asked after the game about Leonard taking over games, Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich said it’s not surprising anymore.
“Well, he’s been doing it a lot, so I don’t think it’s a surprise really,” said Popovich Monday. “He’s a heck of a player, and he’s progressed every year that he’s been in the league, and he’s gotten to this point where he’s one of the premier go-to guys in the league. So, it’d be foolish not to use that ability.”
When asked whether Leonard’s name should be in the MVP race, Popovich was clear the team doesn’t focus on individual awards.
“We don’t talk about MVP awards,” said Popovich. “We don’t talk about any awards. We don’t talk about championships. We just play the game. Everybody tries to do that, they can make the team better and whatever records or awards or wins that come, that’s the way it is.”
Right after Popovich said the Spurs don’t focus on awards, he did slightly and unintentionally make Leonard’s case for MVP, as he said Leonard’s work on the defensive end is what really separates him from other stars.
“The block is what makes him special,” said Popovich. “Obviously the three, you know (James) Harden makes threes, Kawhi makes threes, this guy makes threes, that guy makes threes, Steph (Stephen Curry) makes threes, everybody does that. But I don’t know who goes to the other end and does what he does. Not that many people on a consistent basis, an entire game, game after game. Kawhi wants it badly, and he went and took it.”
With 20 games left in the Spurs’ season, Leonard will continue to put pressure on MVP award voters if he continues to excel at a high level. If the Spurs can overtake the Warriors in the standings for the number one overall record by seasons’ end, then how can voters deny Leonard the MVP award?