The NBA Finals MVP is an individual award, and Kawhi Leonard had a wonderful series as an individual. He guarded LeBron James, the toughest offensive player in the league; he displayed a newfound sense of offensive creativity, attacking the rim and knocking down threes; he rebounded the basketball in traffic, both offensively and defensively.
There were multiple players on the San Antonio Spurs who could have won Finals MVP. Boris Diaw was outstanding as a distributor. Tony Parker, though unspectacular compared to his usual self, was steady and kept the machine whirring. Tim Duncan was Tim Duncan.
But Leonard was the only player handling a significant burden on both ends of the floor. The Spurs clearly didn't respect Wade's ability on offense, throwing Boris Diaw and other lesser defenders on him. Chris Bosh, as the third banana in the Miami offense, simply doesn't require a lot of attention. The rest of the Heat players only served roles and could be helped off of at will.
Only LeBron James required constant and detailed attention. He's clearly shown an improved ability to shoot the basketball from deep, and his skills attacking the rim are already world class.
That was Leonard's job: Somehow find a way to slow LeBron down. In last year's Finals, that meant hovering multiple feet away from James and daring him to shoot. This year, Leonard was in James' personal space, bothering him with constant swipes at the ball and unwavering physicality.
On the surface, LeBron had a phenomenal series: 57.1 percent shooting from the field, 28.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. But in the playoffs, LeBron's burden as the principal offensive creator skyrockets—these numbers are less impressive considering the added burden.
San Antonio's ability to more or less hold LeBron to his season averages are therefore all the more impressive. For Leonard, that meant shutting down James by preventing a shot attempt in the first place. While it's easiest to evaluate a defensive performance by taking a look at the ratio of an opponent's made to missed shots, it's the ability to prevent shot attempts in the first place that is both not quantified and the true mark of a great defensive performance.
What's more is that Leonard did it while pressuring LeBron constantly. Most players drive to the basket when under duress: The proximity of a defender gives him less time to react to an opponent's move, and a quick first step or crossover can leave him in the dust.
LeBron has the most explosive first step in basketball, giving Leonard an even tougher job. Yet oftentimes he still managed to contain James, cutting down on his shot opportunities by not ceding ground anywhere on the floor.
Take this play from Game 5, when the Heat run an offensive set that yields nothing. After Duncan defends Bosh well at the elbow, Bosh kicks it out to James with the shot clock running down.
As the Heat's best player, it's usually on LeBron to create once the offense breaks down. That's what happens here, and he goes to work. Yet after a quick jab and dribble left, Leonard is all over James. Aided by a quick stunt from Manu Ginobili, and Leonard is actually poking at the ball as James backs up farther from the rim.
Instead of attacking, he's completely on his heels. He's therefore forced to give up the ball in the waning seconds of the shot clock, and Bosh is left with the burden of shot creation—not what Miami wants. He takes a heavily contested three-pointer, which he misses.
It's these subtle moments that make a 10-15 point difference over the course of a game. Leonard's superb defense took the ball out of James' hands, lessening his impact on the game.
Leonard, of course, wasn't always able to stop James outright. At times James did get his shot off, but San Antonio did a nice job of rotating help defenders at the rim. The perimeter, however, was Leonard's domain—and James had little room to operate.
In a similar scenario to the one above, here is a play in which another Heat set doesn't open up a shot opportunity. As you watch the play unfold, notice Leonard's ball pressure on James. He's intermittently swiping at the ball, forcing James to remain well above the three-point line and far from a threatening offensive position. Once again, it's James on his heels and Leonard in attack mode.
When everything breaks down and LeBron gets a screen from Udonis Haslem, Leonard actually fights over it to completely nullify the advantage. When Haslem sets the second screen, he gets a bigger piece of Leonard. But the time it takes for LeBron to release from Leonard's pressure gives San Antonio's defense enough to time to push over toward the ball.
This gives James nowhere to pass the ball and little room to drive. Left with no solid options, he attacks Duncan at the rim with a poor angle. Leonard, meanwhile, comes flying back into the play to contest the shot, and LeBron overshoots the light floater.
It's that extra effort by Leonard to fight over the first screen that wins this play. Without it, San Antonio's defense might not have been ready to adjust for a LeBron drive. Duncan might not have slid over completely and properly. But the extra few seconds Leonard affords his teammates gets everything set, and the Spurs are able to force a miss.
Leonard's performance on the offensive end was outstanding as well. Whereas in years past he served more as a defender/three-point shooter, these Finals demonstrated his willingness to attack the rim and be one of the more dangerous options in the San Antonio offense.
As Gregg Popovich put it during his postgame press conference after winning the title, "...I just talked to him about not being in that defer sort of stage. The hell with Tony, the hell with Timmy, the hell with Manu, you play the game. You are the man."
That's what we saw from Leonard this series, and no play exemplified that mentality more than this attack of Dwyane Wade during Game 5.
The play seems simple enough, with Leonard posting Wade up on the block. But look at how this situation develops. After Parker gives James a quick crossover, he immediately dishes it to Leonard on the wing. There are still 10 seconds on the shot clock, and Leonard isn't in an ideal shot-creating position.
Yet he doesn't defer. He doesn't kick the ball out. He decides to attack Wade, who struggled on defense in this series. And this is the right move, because it's where San Antonio has the advantage. Wade was the weak link, and the rest of the Miami players could hold their own in their individual matchups. So Leonard hits him with a quick spin and draws a foul.
It's this type of recognition and willingness to play his game that made Leonard that much more of a dangerous player, and it's why he has a bright future in this league. We can expect Popovich to make him even more of a key cog in San Antonio's offense moving forward, and it wouldn't be all that shocking if he's a perennial All-Star in the not-so-distant future.