SAN ANTONIO — After he led a 16-point comeback against a division rival, after he scored 39 points on 12-of-18 shooting with 30 coming in the second half, after he hit the contested game-winning three off the dribble with 26 seconds left in the game, after he ran back on defense to swat James Harden’s would-be game-tying layup off the glass, Kawhi Leonard said he didn’t really know how voters “pick or choose” the MVP each season.
Leonard made his on-court case in about 10 seconds during Monday’s 112-110 win against the Houston Rockets. In the first half, Leonard had watched as fellow MVP candidate James Harden lit up the Spurs, only for Leonard to respond with an even more convincing final 24 minutes. The defining moment was, of course, this sequence.
The three-pointer was impressive, but the block was special. That’s what separates him, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said. That’s what makes him Kawhi.
“The three, you know Harden makes threes, Kawhi makes threes, this guy makes threes, that guy makes threes, Steph makes threes, everyone does that,” Popovich said. “But I don’t know who goes to the other end and does what [Leonard] does. Not that many people on a consistent basis, an entire game, game after game. Kawhi wanted it badly, and he went and took it.”
It seemed fitting that Leonard was late meeting the media after the game because of a drug test, as if even the league itself couldn’t believe Leonard is this good. (The tests are administered randomly, so put away your tin foil.) When asked about “his three-pointer,” he asked the reporter to clarify which one — as if the question could be about a shot that wasn’t the game-winning one.
Perhaps, always reluctant to sing his own praises, Leonard was just hoping the reporter was referring to something else.
“I’m just playing basketball, trying to make my team the best team right now,” was Leonard’s eventual bland answer, embodying what makes him rare among superstars. Leonard’s time on the floor speaks for him, and he’ll let his teammates fill in the rest.
“I was in complete awe,” Manu Ginobili said. “I couldn’t believe what he did. It was an incredible last few plays.”
Pau Gasol doesn’t think Leonard’s MVP candidacy has left any doubts:
“It’s not hard to see. If you’ve really watched, Kawhi has been very much deserving of being given the MVP this season,” Gasol said. “He’s contributing on both ends of the floor as opposed to a guy who just scores 30 points a game and that is it. He just makes huge plays defensively. He’s my MVP.”
This season has completed Leonard’s development from Very Good to Cold-Blooded Killer. Everyone on the Spurs raves about his confidence taking over games. For several fourth quarters in a row, including another game-winning shot several nights ago, Leonard has done everything the Spurs needed from him to win. To see him do it again — well, at this point, it’s hardly astonishing.
“He’s been doing it a lot, so I don’t think it’s a surprise really,” Popovich said. “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.”
Leonard’s scoring has increased every year, as has his confidence. He never needed to improve his work ethic — he brought his own lights to the darkly lit gym at 6:30 a.m. in college — and he’s always been reticent of the spotlight. But with Tim Duncan retired, Ginobili close, and Tony Parker nowhere near his former self, the Spurs have slowly been pushing the team’s leading mantle to Leonard. “He was more (of an) introvert,” is how Ginobili described Leonard early on. But over time, the Spurs have been rewarded with a player who has absolute confidence in himself.
“There were instances in the past, in certain situations, where he would shy away and not be as aggressive,” Danny Green said. “Now when it comes down to it, he wants the ball. He also wants to take on the challenge defensively.”
Late in the fourth quarter, Green tried to give Leonard a breather. “I’ll take James Harden,” he suggested, given Leonard’s 39 minutes played and heavy offensive burden. But Leonard wouldn’t dream of it, sticking on Houston’s top player all the same, just like he had done for much of the game.
Harden, to his credit, had a 39 point evening with 12 assists. He called Leonard’s block great, but has a different timeline of how it happened.
“It was a good block, but initially I got fouled,” Harden said. “That’s why the ball took so long to get up.”
Still, Harden was 1-of-5 in the fourth quarter as Houston blew what had been a 16-point lead in the first half. Harden has been a favorite for the MVP award all season, but the groundswell for Leonard is starting to turn into a torrent. His presence — scoring 15 of the Spurs’ final 17 points — was the biggest factor in San Antonio’s victory in a game that could be a Western Conference semifinals preview.
The old Leonard might have hung back in the moment. The smart play, perhaps, wouldn’t have been to shoot a contested three-pointer with 10 seconds left on the shot clock.
But the best play was a made shot, no matter the circumstances, and this Leonard — confident, sure of himself, willing to take on the spotlight even if he wasn’t seeking it out — knew he could deliver that.
“Kawhi wanted it badly,” Popovich said, “and he went and took it.”