Kawhi Leonard Steps into Spotlight as Spurs Reach Western Conference Finals

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Kawhi Leonard Steps into Spotlight as Spurs Reach Western Conference Finals
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

The next generation of San Antonio Spurs would like you to know it has already arrived. On a night when Tony Parker played just 10 minutes and Manu Ginobili faded to the background, head coach Gregg Popovich's team hung on to blow out the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 5 by a final score of 104-82. 

Though this will be the franchise's third straight appearance in the Western Conference Finals, there's something a little different about this trip. It's become defined in large part by the young folks, especially Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard isn't used to the spotlight just yet, but at this rate, he certainly will grow accustomed to it. Asked how he felt about coming to the postgame podium for the first time, Leonard deadpanned that, "Tim [Duncan] chose me to come up here," according to NBA.com.

The emerging star even earned a new nickname at halftime, though it hasn't earned universal approval just yet.

Leonard did a little bit of everything Wednesday night, tallying 22 points, seven rebounds and five steals. Those steals helped break the game open, leading to transition buckets that helped compensate for Parker's absence from the half-court offense.

The 22-year-old proved there's no one way to get a steal, playing passing lanes and harassing ball-handlers in equal part.

Leonard has been known for his defense since he came into the league, but his aggressiveness on the offensive end stood out in the conference semifinals. Though Portland guarded him with the capable likes of Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews, Leonard scored from all over the floor. 

For the series, Leonard averaged 17.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.8 steals—all above his season marks. He also made over 56 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 53 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc.

But he was at his best on Wednesday night, cashing in a trio of three-pointers and utilizing his in-between game to keep Portland off balance. Here's a look at his oh-so efficient shooting.

It helps that a couple of those buckets came in transition.

Few are better at turning defense into offense. When Leonard gets a loose ball and turns on the afterburners, he leaves little in doubt. 

Those transition points are nice, but they hardly define the scorer that Leonard has become. The difference in him of late has been his assertiveness in the half court, his willingness to take three-pointers off the dribble, his ability to take a variety of mid-range jumpers and floaters—and, of course, his determination when taking the ball to the rim.

After the game, Leonard admitted that he tried to expand his offense (per NBA.com): "Tonight, I didn't want to settle for jump shots. I tried to go into the paint and get some fouls. With Tony not playing, I was just trying to be aggressive."

This increasingly aggressive version of Leonard adds a new face to the Spurs, and not just in the symbolic sense. For a team that's long missed an athletic slasher, Leonard fills a very real void in the Spurs of old. He's as close to a complete player as you'll find on San Antonio's roster, and he's only just getting started.

When Leonard came into the league, his job was to do all the little things—standing in the corner for three-pointers, attacking the offensive glass for second-chance points. Now he's doing a lot of the big things, too, giving San Antonio a primary option when guys like Parker and Ginobili aren't getting it done.

Of course, Parker's absence on Wednesday wasn't of his own choosing, as ESPN.com's Tim McMahon reports:

Tony Parker left the Spurs' 104-82 series-clinching victory over the Trail Blazers with tightness in his left hamstring during the second quarter and did not return. Parker, San Antonio's lone All-Star this season, exited with 8:45 remaining in the second quarter of Game 5 and the Spurs up six points.

That paved the way for Leonard's big night, but it also poses some important questions for the Spurs. As CBSSports.com's Matt Moore notes, "The hamstring has been a consistent issue for Parker for the last few weeks. He's been receiving treatment and can't seem to kick it."

An opportunity to rest the hamstring should pay dividends. The Spurs will have several days off as they await the winner of the series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers

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Parker opened the second-round series with 33 points and scored 29 in Game 3. He's fueled San Antonio with his jumper and penetration alike, clicking on all cylinders and leaving the Trail Blazers scratching their heads.

There's no telling whether rest alone will solve the hamstring problem. Even if it does, there's no guarantee tightness won't reemerge in the conference finals.

Either way, the Spurs have to be prepared. Leonard could become more vital than ever in the event that Parker's injury becomes a serious concern. He'll need help, too.

And so far he's gotten it.

Leonard's 22 points were matched by Danny Green in Game 5, who had four three-pointers and an especially proficient mid-range game. In Parker's stead, Patty Mills added 18 points and three steals. And as his consistency would have it, Tim Duncan added 16 points and eight rebounds.

Collectively, the Spurs also played one of their best defensive games of the postseason.

They forced 18 turnovers and out-rebounded Portland 47-45. Popovich could be heard during a timeout on TNT praising his players' effort in getting to the 50-50 balls. That was one of the principal differences in the ballgame.

The other was San Antonio's ability to move the ball. The team racked up 24 assists, consistently finding open shooters after running Portland's defenders all over the floor. When it was all said and done, the Spurs cashed in on nine of 21 three-point attempts.

This is what the Spurs do. 

They come off a Game 4 in which they looked borderline lethargic and flip a defensive switch that holds a high-octane team like Portland to just 82 points. That's the same Portland team that twice scored at least 122 points in the first round against the Houston Rockets.

Though Leonard can't claim all the credit for that defensive prowess, he certainly sets a tone. 

Brilliant as San Antonio has been, the team's toughest challenges await. The Spurs were swept 4-0 by the Thunder during their regular-season series, and they would have their hands full with the Clippers' above-the-rim antics.

With or without Parker, either series would be a supremely difficult one for Leonard and Co. Remember, the Spurs never had to face the Thunder last postseason on account of Russell Westbrook's untimely injury. Two years ago, it was the Thunder who knocked the Spurs out in the WCF.

The Spurs got off to a 2-0 lead in that series only to drop four straight, a fact that looms large as Spurs fans wait in nervous anticipation.

Of course, history can only count for so much. The Spurs are playing great right now, and there's not a team left in these playoffs that's eager to face them. They're an intimidating club on both ends of the floor, capable of running you out of the building or clamping down defensively. They're a two-way team.

Much like their best young player.

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