Some NBA players wear their hearts on their shooting sleeves.
Commenting on Leonard's 26-point, five-rebound, three-assist and seven-steal performance in the Spurs' 107-92 drubbing of the Golden State Warriors on Sunday, Popovich couldn't help but gush over his stony-eyed forward, per the San Antonio Express-News' Jeff McDonald:
He stole it from Curry the other night, just took it from him and went down and dunked it, and his expression did not change. He didn't raise his fist or look cool to the crowd or do any of this stupid-ass stuff. He didn't do a thing. He just goes the other direction, like he's bored to death. I love that about him.
That sounds like Leonard all right. He's all business, no pleasure.
If he's ever enjoying himself, you wouldn't know it—except for that one time last June when, you know, the Spurs won the title and he was named Finals MVP. Leonard smiled that night. It was different. It was out of character.
It was sort of weird.
One can only assume Tim Duncan is whispering knock-knock jokes into Leonard's ear. He alone holds the key to the 23-year-old's public displays of happiness.
Seriously, though, there's no reason for Leonard to change. Despite somehow flying under the radar, he is the engine that keeps these dynastic Spurs humming.
As Ben Golliver of SI.com writes:
Because the Spurs are the Spurs, their every stumble cloaked by a unique assumption of excellence forged during nearly two decades of Gregg Popovich’s guidance, Leonard’s hand injury earlier this year was not met with the wall-to-wall, minute-by-minute coverage given to sidelined stars like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, Chris Bosh, and others. Think about that: Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP, remains so overlooked that even his rehabilitation was snubbed.
Leonard’s return to the court in mid-January has transformed the Spurs from a wobbly outfit to a certified steamroller that enters Tuesday’s action riding a league-best seven-game winning streak after walloping the Warriors on Sunday. Without Leonard, San Antonio went 8-9 (.471) and suffered its first full losing month since Feb. 1999 in December. With Leonard, San Antonio is 27-10 (.730) since Jan. 16 and posting numbers that are eerily similar to last year’s Spurs.
When Leonard is on the floor, San Antonio is a different team. A better team.
A title favorite.
Mind-melting record aside, the Spurs are outscoring opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions when he's in the game. That's a better net rating than Tony Parker and Duncan combined (plus-11.3). It also matches that of Golden State, the best team the NBA has seen this side of Michael Jordan's 72-win Chicago Bulls.
More than any one other player, Leonard is why the Spurs find themselves within two games of second place in the Western Conference. They have the league's second-best record since March 1, and with two of their final five tilts coming against the second-place Houston Rockets, that No. 2 seed is there for the taking.
Second place or not, though, San Antonio is still incredibly dangerous. It's a well-oiled machine that doesn't look like it'll be bounced in the first round, regardless of opponent or position.
Leonard is now at the forefront of this sustained excellence after spending the first three seasons of his career existing in the shadows, ceding control and status to Manu Ginobili, Duncan and Parker. To an extent, he's still situated stage right, silently accepting his role as the fulcrum of everything Spurs, trademark frown and all.
And neither the Spurs nor Leonard himself would have it any other way.
*Stats courtesy of NBA.com and are accurate leading into games on April 7.