At 25, Kawhi Leonard’s game has reached the point where we expect superstar performances on a nightly basis. His do-it-all brilliance is now, whether fair or not, taken for granted.
It’s not unlike how fans once looked at Tony Parker. The Frenchman, who turns 35 in a few weeks, was often the star San Antonio counted on to make the key play with the game on the line.
Now in his twilight years, Parker has adjusted to a complementary role on the team, usually acting as the second, third or fourth option on the floor. He’s playing the fewest minutes of his career and working off the ball more, instead of feasting off tear drops and step-back jumpers as he once did. The keys to the offense, once built around him, belong to Leonard.
Yet, as we saw throughout the Spurs’ first-round series with Memphis, the man can still reach that next gear when necessary. He exploited a Grizzlies defense intent on trying to contain Leonard and made up for nights when LaMarcus Aldridge struggled, averaging 16.3 points per contest.
In Game 6, Parker once again shared the spotlight – and offensive load – with his All-Star teammate, the two combining for 56 points and a number of the game’s biggest moments. And the Spurs needed every last one.
Trailing 88-81 with less than six minutes to go, Leonard reeled off six straight points to get the Spurs within one. The Grizzlies had found ways to stymie the Spurs’ ball movement earlier in the night, but the offense would look much more fluid from then on.
One reason why is the lineup Pop chose to finish with for the third game in a row, inserting Patty Mills for starting shooting guard Danny Green and leaving David Lee to play alongside Aldridge. The undersized lineup gives up a lot defensively, but provides better spacing and ball-handling to surround Leonard with. The decision worked out: Mills and Lee both had big baskets as San Antonio fought back in front.
With a 94-92 lead with under two minutes to go, Leonard passed the ball out of a triple team to find Parker, who took a few dribbles before coolly knocking down a 13-foot jumper. A few possessions later it was again Leonard, this time pulling down a defensive rebound, passing it to Parker in the open court, his layup helping put the game out of reach for good.
It was the Spurs’ first win of the year in Memphis in five tries, the final challenge in a first-round series that pushed them more than most people expected. They now advance to face their I-10 rivals, the Houston Rockets, a playoff matchup that, in many ways, is long overdue
Game 1 of Spurs-Rockets will be in San Antonio on Monday night.