After his superstar forward dominated the Memphis Grizzlies through all six games of their first-round playoff series, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich heaped the highest of praise onto Kawhi Leonard:
Gregg Popovich on Kawhi Leonard: "The best player in the league right now. He's the best two-way player and does it all with such class." pic.twitter.com/Oc4JI9RQJD— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 28, 2017
“Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now,” Popovich said after San Antonio’s 103-96 Game 6 victory to eliminate Memphis on Thursday. “He’s the best two-way player and does it all with such class. It’s impressive.”
Leonard ran amok against the Grizzlies, averaging 31.2 points per game, including a 43-point Game 4 barrage that nearly went to double overtime. He did so shooting 54.8 percent from the field, 48.3 percent from three, and 96.7 percent from the foul line, far and away the most efficient shooting mark of any player to average at least 17 points in the first round.
The All-Star forward did it on the other end as well, holding his opponent to 37.5 percent shooting for the series, 6.4 percent worse than they normally shoot. That’s a better defensive percentage than Draymond Green (though Green forced a larger drop-off in shooting percentage), Jae Crowder, and Andre Roberson.
Popovich isn’t the only coach to heap praise on his All-Star forward. Leonard sent Grizzlies coach David Fizdale into a massive face palm, questioning whether or not the Spurs forward was human and opening up the suggestion on ways to stop him. Warriors coach Steve Kerr also called Leonard “the best two-way player in the league” last season.
TNT’s studio crew of Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley dubbed Leonard the second-best player in the world during halftime of Game 5. The Spurs forward wasn’t interested in the title, but only in his team becoming the best in the world. Leonard echoed similar sentiments when made aware of Popovich’s comments on Thursday, but he relented that the title of league’s best player tends to be a never-ending game of hot potato.
“Like I said before, I’m not trying to be the best player. I’m trying to be the best team,” he told reporters, according to The San Antonio Express-News’ Jabari Young. “And that changes every day, being the best player. Somebody has a bad game and somebody has a great game then he’s the best player. If he has a bad game, and I have a good game, then I’m the best player. It just changes every day.”
The Spurs advanced to the second round, and they’ll meet a hungry, trigger-happy Houston Rockets team led by likely MVP runner-up James Harden. The Spurs will need both spectra of Leonard’s game if they hope to move on to the Western Conference Finals.
And if his play in the first round was an indication of what we’ll see in the second, we’re in for a treat.