For the second time this week, Kawhi Leonard squared off against a fellow NBA MVP candidate with gaudier numbers. On Monday night, Leonard’s crunch time heroics against James Harden and the Rockets signaled his official arrival in the MVP race, for those that somehow forget he finished second to Stephen Curry for the same honor last season.
Thursday night in Oklahoma City, with Russell Westbrook in full-on wrecking ball mode, Leonard sat out the entire fourth quarter due to an inadvertent elbow to the head from Westbrook. The Thunder went on to break San Antonio’s nine-game winning streak, 102-92, behind Westbrook’s 31sttriple-double of the season. Following the loss, Spurs medical staff confirmed that Leonard took a blow to the head but did not sustain a concussion.
While it’s still too early to tell if Leonard will suit up for Saturday’s showdown against the Warriors in San Antonio, Coach Gregg Popovich will likely take no chances with the face of the franchise, and rightly so. There are still 18 games left on the schedule for the Spurs, not including the playoffs, which they recently clinched for an NBA record 20th consecutive season.
The severity and caution surrounding Leonard’s injury could turn the final stretch for MVP back into a two-man race between Harden and Westbrook. While Harden has rejuvenated the Rockets franchise for a second time, and Westbrook is chasing history, Kawhi has quietly kept the Spurs in the hunt for a sixth NBA title.
It’s worth noting that in 1962, when Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double to captured basketball’s only triple crown, he finished third in MVP voting, behind Wilt Chamberlain and the great Bill Russell who took home the award that year. Of this year’s MVP contenders not named LeBron, Leonard is the only one who owns the trophy named after Russell, given to the most valuable player of the NBA Finals.
Realistically, Leonard’s only shot at capturing MVP lies with the collective success of the Spurs. If San Antonio overtakes the Warriors in the standings, for the best record in the league and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, it would be tough to vote against him. That the Spurs’ post-season fortunes are seemingly tied to Leonard’s side-glanced pursuit of the highest individual honor in the game could be kismet for Kawhi.