Kawhi Leonard: The Spur of Tomorrow Arrives a Little Early

The torch in San Antonio will be passed to Kawhi Leonard eventually, but in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, he may have taken it earlier than expected.

When San Antonio’s Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili eventually rides off into the sunset, the Spurs, by most accounts, will become Kawhi Leonard’s team. Leonard is the perfect fit to replace the likes of team leaders and living legends Duncan and Coach Gregg Popovich when they depart, in part because of his excellence on both ends of the court, but also for his demeanor. Like Duncan and Pop, Kawhi is a man of few words.

Look no further than Tuesday night for your evidence. Leonard’s performance in Game 3 of the 2014 NBA Finals was undeniably the best of his young career. And what did he do after it?

He turned down his podium invitation.

While most budding stars would kill for that moment - the chance to break out on the NBA’s biggest stage and to talk about those accomplishments in front of everyone - Kawhi was content to let his game do the talking.

And in Game 3, Kawhi’s game, unlike the man, simply wouldn’t shut up.

After struggling through the first two games of the series, Leonard managed to find some of the mojo that he displayed during last year’s Finals, a series in which he averaged 14.6 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 2.0 steals per game, while shooting 51.3% from the floor and 34.8% from deep. In the first half of this year's Game 3 alone, he almost matched his entire production from the first two games of the series and had met or exceeded almost all those totals by the final buzzer (and far more efficiently to boot).

Games 1 & 21861442.9%4320
Game 3 (First Half)186785.7%3121
Game 3 (Total)29101376.9%4222

It was clear from the get go that this would be a special game for Kawhi. In the first quarter alone, he was spectacular, going toe to toe with the best basketball player on the planet, LeBron James, and not backing down in the slightest.

In that opening frame, Leonard played all 12 minutes and was the definition of perfection, going 5 for 5 from the floor, 3 for 3 from long range, and 3 for 3 from the line for 16 points. That’s good for an effective field goal percentage (weighted twos and threes) of 130.0% and a true shooting percentage (weighted twos, threes, and free throws) of 126.6%. He finished the game at 88.5% and 90.2%, but don’t let the perceived drop-off fool you - that’s still very good. In case you’re a visual learner, let this big green blur posing as a shot chart tell you as much:


He had an offensive rating (the rate at which his team scored points with him on the floor extrapolated over 100 possessions) of 180.5 in that first quarter, and a 131.8 for the game. Compared to the Spurs’ postseason offensive rating of 111.9 - which is impressive in its own right - that’s downright absurd.

Much like the Spurs in the fourth quarter of Game 1, Kawhi was essentially efficient beyond the capacity of the metrics we use to measure such things in that first quarter and he kept up that torrid pace for the better part of the game.

Kawhi’s counterpart, LeBron James, played an excellent game as well, and his stat line in the first quarter and the game as a whole would rival Leonard’s by most accounts, apart from a few key differences. LeBron’s 7 turnovers to Kawhi’s 1 stands out, but nothing is more eye popping than the difference in plus-minus.

By the end of the game, Kawhi was a +19 and King James was a -21.

For as good as LeBron was and ultimately is, Kawhi was simply better in this contest. Similarly, the Heat are the two-time champions, but the Spurs looked every bit the contender with Kawhi in the driver’s seat.

Leonard’s efficiency was a big part of the story, and he did a bit of everything on the offensive end, but his accomplishments are made all the more impressive by his abilities on the defensive end. The fact that he became the youngest person in NBA history (at age 22) to score 25-plus points in a Finals game while shooting over 75.0% from the field is astonishing in and of itself. But the fact that he did it while chasing around the best basketball player on the planet for the majority of his 40 minutes played, on the road, in dominant 111-92 victory? That’s what makes it a performance for the ages.

And with that, the Spurs have a 72.64% likelihood to take this series, according to our algorithms. For as much as that eventuality would be discussed as Duncan’s fifth championship, or Parker and Ginobili’s fourth, one mustn’t forget that this would be Kawhi Leonard’s first. We’re so caught up in discussing legacies at their end, we might be missing one at its beginning.

Leonard went out in Game 3, took the court with no fewer than seven future Hall of Famers, and outplayed every last one of them, making history in the process. For that, it’s high time we stopped this nonsense of calling the Spurs a “Big Three” and call them a “Big Four”. As much as Kawhi was supposed to be the Spur of tomorrow, he has clearly arrived early and earned the right to be discussed in the present tense.

Just don’t expect him to join in on the conversation.