After giving up home-court advantage in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs needed somebody to help them get it back.
Kawhi Leonard was that somebody.
San Antonio's silent assassin ripped the Miami Heat apart in a 111-92 Game 3 victory, wresting home court back from the defending champs and showing just how dangerous the Spurs could be when Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili get help from a fourth elite talent.
Thanks to him, the Spurs now hold a 2-1 series lead.
Leonard finished with a game-high 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting, tossing in four rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks for good measure. It was a phenomenal statistical performance—one that put Leonard into elite historical company:
What Leonard did was about more than numbers, though.
From the opening tip, he made it clear he understood the Spurs' need for a spark. Five consecutive makes to start the game certainly sufficed.
Leonard was unconscious in the opening quarter, taking shots as they came and appearing almost alarmingly relaxed. He was confident, ready to attack or defer as necessary and, of course, quiet. Still, his performance caused an early outburst among NBA observers:
Essentially, Leonard provided the perfect mixture of ruthless determination and steady focus San Antonio needed to hand the Heat their first home playoff loss since Game 1 of last year's Finals.
His hot start was contagious, and San Antonio simply couldn't miss in the game's early stages.
It's hard to give Leonard credit for the Spurs' utterly ridiculous shooting accuracy, but he was the tone-setter. His brilliant play put everyone else at ease, making them all fully aware that there'd be no emotional letdown after a rough loss in Game 2.
Because this is Leonard we're talking about, it should go without saying that he got the job done on both ends. Despite his habit of making major contributions on defense, what he did in Game 3 stood out as something beyond the norm.
LeBron James got his numbers, finishing with 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting, but Leonard made him work for them.
When James drove hard, Leonard moved his feet and contested. When James posted up, Leonard bodied him right back.
In the end, LeBron still put up a terrific statistical line and looked very much like the league's best player. But he also finished with seven turnovers as the strain of dealing with a seemingly possessed Leonard eventually wore James down.
He made mistakes. And the Heat don't win very often when James plays at anything beneath superhero levels.
Leonard was there when the Spurs needed him, letting his actions do all the talking. Actually, if we're concerned with figurative accuracy, Leonard's actions were absolutely screaming. As if trying to live up to his reputation as the league's quietest star, he finished the game in unassuming fashion.
Of course, Leonard's team-first attitude is an extension of the overall Spurs philosophy. Whether he's adopted that approach from his time with the team or came with it pre-loaded into his basketball circuitry doesn't matter much. The point is, he's the perfect component to a system that prizes production over pride, substance over style, grit over glitz.
And, appropriately, Gregg Popovich—a man whose demeanor and understated leadership has formed the Spurs and, to a large extent, Leonard—refused to heap praise on his small forward's incredible effort.
Nothing to see here. Just a 22-year-old arriving on the scene in the biggest game of his life.
Of course, Leonard probably wouldn't have wanted any fanfare anyway.
As the Spurs get ready for another tilt in Miami on Thursday, they'll have to prepare for the Heat's counterpunch. And no matter how great Leonard was in Game 3, we can't expect him to be equally terrific in Game 4. The same goes for the Spurs as a whole.
In other words, we may not see another half that includes 75.8 percent shooting in this series.
But broadly speaking, San Antonio found something in Game 3 that it can take with it as these Finals progress.
We talk about the Heat's extra gear all the time—that hard-to-reach level that, when they find it, makes them almost impossible to contain. The defense turns into a swarm of wasps, transition buckets come in flurries and before opponents know what happened, Miami has buried them with a 12-0 run.
Now, the Spurs have a similar setting: the one they reach when Leonard plays up to his full capabilities.
That changes the narrative of this series considerably. Before, the Heat had an advantage because they could elevate their play to a level the Spurs couldn't match. Even if San Antonio was, on balance, a better, steadier team, the Heat still had those transcendent spurts in them.
Thanks to Leonard, we know San Antonio has its own extra gear.
And in a series that figured to be a near deadlock from the outset, Leonard's revelatory performance could make all the difference in the world.
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