Meet the Spurs’ answer to LeBron James
by Alex Kennedy, USA TODAY Sports
MIAMI — As Kawhi Leonard was forced to address the news media for more than 30 minutes, he didn’t hide his disdain for the circus that comes with playing in the NBA Finals. Leonard is one of the quietest players in the NBA and he’d be thrilled if he could play basketball without having to answer questions about it.
When asked what he thought about having to stand at a lectern and hold court with the press, Leonard said bluntly, “I don’t like it at all.”
Leonard’s team-first attitude won over coach Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs early on. His recent production has been a bonus, particularly against the Miami Heat in the Finals, where the 21-year-old is guarding four-time MVP LeBron James.
In Game 1, James scored six points on 2-for-8 from the field when Leonard was guarding him. His average shot attempt was 16.4 feet away from the basket. Against all other Spurs, James had 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting, and his average attempt was 8.9 feet away from the basket. Forcing James to take difficult shots paid off in the form of a 92-88 Spurs victory.
“I just try to stay in contact with him, making him take tough shots and making him score over me,” Leonard said. “I just try to stay in front of him. There are some things that we still need to cut off. He had a lot of points at the basket. And it was just one game. He could come out here and have a better game than that (in Game 2).”
That’s not to say James wasn’t productive; he had a triple-double with 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists. But Leonard’s pestering defense paved the way to his 7-for-16 shooting.
“As expected, he’s going to work,” Miami Heat forward Shane Battier said of Leonard. “That’s a tall order, trying to guard LeBron, but the first rule in trying to guard him is he has to fight. He has to fight.”
Leonard can match up with James better than most. He’s 6-7 with a 7-3 wingspan and the largest hands ever measured at the … [For more on Kawhi Leonard proves Spurs' answer to LeBron James, click here.]