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Ladies And Gentleman, Mr. Kawhi Leonard

By Jeff Koch on May 16, 2014.

Portland 82, San Antonio 104
Spurs win series 4-1

That was the most gentlemanly Gentleman’s Sweep imaginable. Go up 3-0 to essentially end the series, but let the lower seeded team close down their building for the season and send their home crowd off with a victory. Before mercifully ending the series in Game 5.

The Blazers played hard, but the writing was on the wall early, even as they made mini-runs at the end of each of the first 3 quarters to keep it relatively close. The only real drama occurred when Tony Parker left the bench and went back to the locker room with what we later learned was tightness in his left hamstring. He did not return. But no team in the NBA is more equipped to win a game–even an important playoff game–without a star player than the San Antonio Spurs. Pop doesn’t spend the entire regular season cultivating depth and instilling a sense of ownership and confidence in his entire roster for nothing. Patty Mills stepped in and did Patty Mills things, and the offense ran seamlessly as the Spurs ran away from the Blazers in the second half.

Yes, the Spurs roster can fill any hole, except perhaps the one occupied by Kawhi Leonard.

Kawhi might not be the Spurs best player (yet), but he is quickly becoming its most important. His presence puts everyone else in the right spot and just makes everything work right. He’s the bridge between the guards and the bigs, with the ball handling and athleticism of the guards and the rebounding and strength of the bigs. He can really do it all: shoot, pass, drive, rebound, defend (both primary and help), get steals, get blocks. He’s dangerously close to being able to do it all really well. He had the full package on display in Game 5, stroking the 3-ball, driving in half court sets for layups, turning steals into dunks (the first one where he split two defenders and then double pumped in the air got more play, but the next steal, in which he essentially reached around and underneath Lillard’s dribble to nab the ball, then sped down the court and gathered and palmed the ball in one single motion with one hand was more impressive to me), playing pestering defense on the entire Blazers roster.

He’s ready to explode into a superstar; there’s not much limit on what he can be as a basketball player. And Pop has handled his maturation with a master’s touch, playing the long game and bringing him along at a pace to establish a wonderful career, not just a single season or series. After last year’s Finals, everyone thought this would be his breakout year. His season started out slow, but Pop also inched him along, never giving him too much offensive responsibility, always reminding him that it starts on defense. With the offensive firepower this team has, there was no need to elevate him to a featured player just yet. He finds most of his offense on his own and from his defense. Those plays–like the break away dunks–can emotionally count for double. Taking points away from the other team, giving points to your team, and exasperating the other team along the way.

So many great two-way players lose a huge chunk of their defensive edge when more offensive responsibility are put upon them. It happened with Artest, Iguadola still has trouble finding the balance, and Paul George is going through that learning curve now. Defense is what makes Leonard’s game special (and complete) and is what allows the Spurs to be special. All of the offense we get off of that is bonus.

But as we see in the Blazers series, we should start expecting more and more of that bonus.

In so many ways, this series was the opposite of the Mavs series, despite those two teams being similarly constructed and running similar designs. But Carlisle and the Mavs understood that while the Big 3 make the Spurs great, it’s everybody else that makes the team special. So they forced the Big 3 to win the series, and over the first 6 games, the Spurs were a meager 3-3. In Game 7, though, they finally freed themselves, and were able to play with full freedom, allowing every player to do what they are asked to do for this team. This trend continued into the next series, in which the bench and the role players really allowed the Spurs to dominate the series. The results: 5-1 over the next 6 games.

Now the toughest challenge awaits: the Oklahoma City Thunder. I wouldn’t want it any other way. To be the best, you must beat the best, and over the last 3 years, no two teams have been better in the West than the Spurs and the Thunder. I’ll have a full Western Conference Preview up later this weekend. Game 1 is Monday evening.

Go Spurs Go.

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