San Diego saw this coming three years ago. In the 2010-2011 basketball season, Aztec fans piled into the constantly sold-out Viejas Arena night in and night out to watch their 34-3 Aztecs officially break out in the national college basketball spotlight. Like current SDSU teams, the 2010-2011 Aztecs played team-first basketball, with their leading scoring netting 15.5 points per game. But that leading scorer also averaged 10.6 rebounds per game and shot 44 percent from the field. Oh yeah, and he also had a 7-foot-3 wingspan and and hands 11.25 inches long and 9.75 inches wide. That player was 19-year-old Kawhi Leonard--and he was just getting started.
Leonard declared for the NBA after his sophomore season at SDSU, during which the Aztecs fell to the eventual NCAA Champion UConn in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. He was drafted 15th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Indiana Pacers. But the Pacers traded their pick to the San Antonio Spurs, who had hand-picked Leonard as a perfect fit for the fundamental, team-oriented San Antonio team.
Three years later, Leonard is currently 22 years young and has put his name on the "Rising NBA Stars" map. His defense is known throughout the league, and his offense is raw but powerful and developing quite nicely. In fact, Leonard shot 38 percent from long distance this season.
He's even on TV, folks, featured on multiple H.E.B Supermarket commercials in San Antonio.
And now, Leonard is flourishing right before our very eyes in this year's NBA Finals and is leading the charge for Finals MVP.
No team dominated in the first two, back-and-forth games of the series. Leonard got into foul trouble early in both of these games and only played a total of 56 minutes. He couldn't get into a rhythm and played out of character, grabbing just four total rebounds and blocking zero shots.
You all know what's happened with the Spurs in the last two games: they have absolutely massacred the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena in Miami, outscoring the champs 218-176, outshooting the champs by 10.1 percent and outrebounding the champs by 20. And what's been the Spurs' biggest change? Mr. Leonard.
I'm not sure what happened. Maybe Coach Popovich gave Leonard a "Pop" talk. Maybe Leonard was tired of the negative media coverage. Who knows, maybe he just drank a Five Hour Energy. But I know one thing for sure: Leonard has played truly remarkably in his 78 minutes in the last two games--the two games that have completely changed the complexion of this series.
For one thing, Leonard is scoring at record rates for him: he scored 29 points in game three (a college-and-NBA-career high) and 20 in game four. He grabbed four boards in game three and a whopping 14 (five offensive) en route to a double-double in game four. He's also played a key role in the Spurs' pass-happy offense, dishing out five assists in the last two games. But what might be most impressive about his offensive production is his ball protection: he's turned it over just twice in the last two games.
Leonard is also endlessly pestering the Heat offense, recording five blocks and five steals in games three and four. Those blocks and steals have directly led to 10 Spurs points. He's particularly making King James look very not-royal on the court.
Before game four, James had only shot the ball on 17 percent of his possessions against Leonard, according to ESPN.com. ESPN.com also reports that Leonard had prevented the Heat from getting James the ball on 35 percent of Miami possessions before game four, opposed to 25 percent when Leonard isn't guarding James. The same trend shows up when looking at James' drives to the basket before game four: against Leonard, James drove to the basket just 14 percent of the time, whereas he drove to the hoop 22 percent against all other defenders, according to ESPN.com. And in games three and four, James averaged five turnovers per game--he averaged 3.5 during the regular season.
Check out Leonard's defense on James in game three.
Most of us out there thought this series would be a back-and-forth, very close series--and it was in the first two games. But this series dramatically changed into a one-sided slugfest in games three and four. With his high level of play on both ends of the court, Leonard has been the biggest catalyst for that change and should be the frontrunner for Finals MVP. If the Spurs win game five on Sunday and Leonard performs well, I can't see any other Spur deserving it more than the former Aztec. Magic Johnson still holds the record for youngest player to win Finals MVP for his performance in the 1980 NBA Finals--20 years, 10 months old. At 22 years, 11 months old, Leonard wouldn't be too far off.
I can write all I want. But words--however powerful--can only do so much. So I'll leave you with the video of Leonard's emphatic put-back dunk in the second quarter of game four.