Season 50, Game 59
San Antonio 100, Indiana 99
46-13, 2nd in the West
Just like he’d probably practiced hundreds of times growing up. Just like Mike.
Drive middle, spin baseline (travel? I didn’t see any travel), fadeaway jumper for the win. Over the opponent’s best defender, to boot.
With each game, Leonard adds to his highlight reel. As 20-point games becoming the norm slowly morphs into 30-point games becoming the norm; as his clutch plays and critical baskets continue to pile up; and, most importantly, as his team continues to win at an incredible rate, it gets harder and harder to deny Kawhi’s place in the game.
Is he the best player in the NBA? You could make a cogent argument. Most would still take LeBron. And in a seven-game series, sure, I probably still would. (Kawhi still needs to prove himself in the playoffs as a clear cut superstar.) He doesn’t quite have the panache or gall of Curry. He is not as blatantly talented as Durant. He doesn’t rack up triple-doubles like Westbrook. He isn’t an offensive genius like Harden.
But he’s got a little bit of each of those players in him. He’s made himself into a ridiculously good shooter. He has trained himself to have elite basketball instincts, something that seems almost impossible. While not demonstrably passionate, he plays with a ferocity and intensity that few in the league can match. His court vision is expanding by the game.
Oh, and he plays defense a heck of a lot better than most of his competition.
As the cliche goes, he is probably the best “two-way player” in the league. He might be the most well-rounded player in the league, with no demonstrable flaws in his game. He likely won’t win the MVP. But is there a player you’d rather have on your team right now?
And yet, I still worry the Spurs are relying too much on him, that there is too much burden on his massive shoulders. On Wednesday night, Kawhi took 22 shots (making 11 of them). The next highest shot count on the team? Aldridge, with 9. That’s not the balance we’re used to seeing. Yes, with a talent like Kawhi, the balance must necessarily shift (as it did with Duncan in the early aughts). But is that shifting too far?
His minutes are still relatively low compared to the rest of the league, and the team still has incredible chemistry and cohesion. That’s never a concern for the Spurs. We just want to make sure that Kawhi still has plenty in the tank come playoff time, and that the team is playing great basketball.
With Durant going down to injury and the Warriors not as awesome as last year, there is suddenly a slight crack of an opening in the Western Conference. Golden State is still top dog, but they are not as overwhelming of favorites as before. They seem beatable.
A Kawhi-led Spurs team might just be the team to beat them, as crazy as that might have sounded even 8 months ago.
The Spurs travel to New Orleans Friday night to face the Pelicans for the first time since they traded for DeMarcus Cousins. They haven’t played well with him yet, so let’s hope the Spurs can gut out a win in an arena that has been so unkind to them over the years.
Go Spurs Go.