Hardworking Leonard helps Spurs to get back in title hunt
The draft day trade that sent George Hill to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for rookie Kawhi Leonard and the rights to Erazem Lorbek and Davis Bertans is looking like one-sided as the days goes by.
Make no mistake, Hill is a terrific player and he did a great job in helping the Pacers reach the second round of the playoffs this season, bowing down only to East's favorite team the Miami Heat.
However, it could not be overlooked that Leonard has such a strong impact to the San Antonio Spurs only in his rookie year.
The small forward out of San Diego State has played well enough during the regular season and has continued to rise to the occasion in the playoffs.
In Game 2 of their Western Conference Finals against Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Leonard scored a workman-like 18 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked two shots.
But more importantly, he played solid defense on Durant.
If you think that Leonard had just one of those big nights, think again.
He is averaging 9.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals while shooting 50 percent from the field, including 45.2 percent from beyond the arc in 10 games this postseason.
Those numbers were a marked improvement from his regular season averages, and coach Gregg Popovich is well aware of it.
"Kawhi Leonard is a really quick learner," Popovich said Tuesday after the Spurs gained a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series. "He's got a work ethic that's really impressive, and he has no fear. He's enjoying guarding the guys he’s had to guard all year long.
"I’ve learned as the year went along to believe in him more and more. Now I just wish he knew our plays."
Leonard already has learned one of Popovich's favorite axioms. Asked how he could seem so cool while facing a player as skilled as Durant, he gave a simple answer.
"It's really just a basketball game," he said, "a game I've been playing my whole life. I just try to go out there and play my hardest and help the team win."
Leonard acknowledges occasionally feeling the need to pinch himself to see if what he's experiencing is real. The magnitude of playing such a big role on such a big stage is not wasted on the quiet rookie.
"Yeah, every day it does (strike me)," he said. "I'm just living in the moment, and I've got a great group of guys behind me and coaches who are helping me move forward and get better."
It might be a stretch to say, but I think Leonard has lend a big hand, as to why the Spurs remains unbeaten after 10 games in the playoffs.
San Antonio's last title was in 2007 when Bruce Bowen was still with them. Now that they have a player similar to Bowen's skills (probably better and more athletic), it's no coincidence that they are back in the title hunt.
(AP Photo-Darren Abate)