The San Antonio Spurs are three wins away from being crowned NBA champions, but they won’t be able to do so if Kawhi Leonard does not start to perform the way we are used to.
Leonard is James’ usual matchup on offense, but with Leonard in foul trouble, James was able to stay away from him and score at will for most of the second half.
Leonard eventually fouled out of the game with the Spurs down by only two. Without him, the Spurs were never able to come back.
Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post highlights how effective Leonard has been against James:
With Leonard on the court during last year’s NBA Finals, James had an effective field goal percentage — which adjusts for the fact that a three-point field goal is worth one more point than a two-point field goal — of 47.5 percent. When Leonard was on the bench, that jumped to 53.1 percent. James’s points in the paint per 36 minutes in the series were 8.4 and 11.3, respectively.
Statistically, Leonard has had the best regular season of his career and the expectations for him during these Finals are very high.
In the 2013-14 season, Leonard shot 52.2 percent from the field and averaged 12.8 points as well as 6.2 rebounds per game. He was also named to the 2013-14 NBA All-Defensive Second Team.
LeBron James now being guarded by the anti-Lance Stephenson -- Kawhi Leonard. Doesn't say a word. Ultimate pro.
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) June 6, 2014
Throughout these playoffs, Leonard has averaged 13.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 0.5 blocks, 1.7 steals, only 1.1 turnovers and 2.4 personal fouls per game. In the Finals, however, he has managed an average of nine points, two rebounds, no blocked shots, one steal, two turnovers and 4.5 personal fouls per game.
This decline in statistics is largely due to his foul trouble, causing him to play more cautiously.
One area that Leonard has performed well in during the Finals so far is from behind the arc, where he has gone 4-of-6. This would have probably come in handy at the end of Game 2 when the Spurs were down by three, but Leonard was on the bench having already fouled out.
During the 2013 NBA Finals, when the Spurs also faced the Heat, Leonard played a crucial role in each of the team's three wins in the series.
In those victories, Leonard shot over 55 percent from the field while averaging 13.3 points, 10 rebounds, 2.7 steals, one block, one turnover and 2.3 personal fouls per game.
A lot of it, again, revolves around those personal fouls. When Leonard is able to play aggressive on both sides of the floor, he is one of the best players on the Spurs. With any foul trouble, Leonard is taken off his game and essentially neutralized.
If the Spurs want to prevent the Heat from taking a lead in this series, they will need a better performance from their young star.