by Mike Seely
While Tuesday night's blowout win over the Heat was punctuated by the surprisingly dynamic sharpshooting duo of Gary Neal and Danny Green, the all-important comma in Miami's death sentence was Kawhi Leonard. Much was made of Golden State small forward Harrison Barnes elevating his game during the second round against the Spurs, but it's been Leonard who's quietly emerged as the breakout player of the playoffs at large, averaging 2.7 more rebounds per game than he did during the regular season while shooting a scorching 54 percent from the field. And when we say "quietly," we really mean it.
Befitting of the team he plays for (at least without Stephen Jackson on it), Leonard lets his actions — or, alternately, his knack for impeding the actions of others — speak for themselves. Have you ever seen Leonard get chippy with a ref or opposing player? Nope. Better yet, have you ever seen Leonard open his mouth, period? He might speak fluent Tagalog, for all America knows, and not a lick of English. In a league full of whiners, Leonard's silence is a refreshing splash of Aqua Velva to the noisemakers' pore-singeing Skin Bracer.
Speaking of which, while Bruce Bowen was the most effective perimeter defender on the Spurs' last championship team, he was dirty as fuck, and an offensive liability. Leonard is not without his offensive limitations; the Spurs run no plays for him for a reason, with Leonard getting virtually all of his 12.6 points per game off kick-out threes, putbacks, or instinctual cuts to the rim. But at least he can do that (Bowen couldn't, aside from the threes), and, lest we forget, Leonard's only 21.
It will be interesting to see what sort of salary Leonard fetches if the Spurs don't lock him down before he heads for free agency in a couple of years. As a recent Grantland column astutely pointed out, the caliber of team on which a young baller ends up is an underrated factor in that player's performance, and Leonard looks like the type of teammate who's more suited for a long career as a brilliant third or fourth option on a title-caliber squad than someone you can build around. The Spurs may even conclude, as they prepare for life after Duncan, that the money Leonard can expect to command is better spent on a more dexterous off-the-dribble scorer or low-post behemoth.
But crystal balls are infinitely breakable, and can be a bummer to boot — especially when the present finds the Spurs two wins away from the fifth title of the Tim Duncan era. And speaking of Duncan, with reports that he and Tony Parker were perilously late to the gym Tuesday night as a result of graduation traffic, we doubt the whole of San Antonio would mind if all Spurs — T-Mac, even — got police escorts to home games from here on out. Either that or flying carpets. I mean, Kawhi not?