The first two NBA Finals games, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard wasn’t involved as much as the evolving star he appeared to be in last year’s Finals and through the regular season in which he was a second team All-Defensive Team selection. In fact, Leonard was about as involved in the Finals as the team from which the Spurs got him, Indiana.
Tuesday, Leonard got involved to the point of being in the nucleus of San Antonio’s first-half perfection. His 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting in San Antonio’s Game 3 win were his high for an NBA game, playoffs or regular season.
He drilled shots in rhythm and off balance, six of seven from the field and three of four from three-point range. He hit all three free throws, including one after a winding one-arm scoop listed toward the outside of the rim before falling back through. He came up with two steals. He got a blocked shot, off a drive by Heat superstar LeBron James no less.
“He just came out extremely aggressively,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And that’s what happens in the playoffs oftentimes. He’s been beaten up a little bit in the media for a couple of days, and he had a great response [Tuesday night].”
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Leonard and James each led their teams in playing time with 21:24 in the first half. Each had three rebounds. Leonard scored only two more points than James, 18 to 16. But the half for each could be summed up in the moment Leonard almost as an afterthought confidently flicked the ball from James out of bounds.
Leonard kept James — as much as one can — from scoring or setting up scores off penetration.
“He was very attentive [defensively],” Ginobili said. “The team helped him more [than in Games 1 and 2]. It’s hard to keep LeBron under 25.”
In fact, in the fourth quarter, it was Leonard who got the driving baseline dunk over the Heat’s Chris Andersen and did the drive-and-kick-for-three to Tony Parker that put the Spurs up 97-82.
And, later, Leonard forced Ray Allen’s fastbreak layup miss that resulted in Manu Ginobili rebounding and getting fouled by Dwyane Wade.
The LeBron vs. Leonard matchup figured to be one of the reasons this rematch could be as good or better than the seven-game 2013 NBA Finals. Yet through the first two games, James’ brilliance-aborting cramps in Game 1 and brilliance unabated in Game 2 overshadowed Leonard’s lackluster twin nine-point performances. Leonard, 22, had four turnovers in Game 1 (so did James, who handles the ball more) and fouled out of Game 2.
“We just wanted him to be who he’s been the whole year, in the regular season and in the playoffs,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “I think the foul situations the first two games, really he overreacted to them and became very cautious and he doesn’t play like that. He’s got to be really active at both ends.”