Why you should love Kawhi Leonard, and other Finals observations

Soobum Im-US PRESSWIRE

Our humble second-year small forward doesn't think he's playing very good defense against the best player in the world, but don't worry gang, he promises to keep at it until he figures it out.

Do you ever get the feeling that Kawhi Leonard was put on Earth specifically to make us happy and make LeBron James sad?

Obviously it's early (far too early to pick an MVP) but to me it's a no-brainer that Leonard is the Finals MVP through three games. He's been absolutely, mind-bogglingly incredible: the way he's made life a living hell for James; the way he's rebounded on both ends of the floor (allowing us to play small even without Duncan on the floor because it's not like Splitter is snatching those boards); the way he's punished the Heat for playing off of him on the three point line; for not boxing him out aggressively and for not getting back in transition.

Leonard is playing like a Pistons-era Dennis Rodman, but with a better handle, a better outside shot and without any of the crazy.

The really beautiful part is that there isn't anyone on the planet less impressed with his accomplishment so far than Leonard himself. "Honestly I don't think I'm doing that good of a job (on James)," Leonard continues to insist, and you actually believe he believes this.

After Game 1 Leonard was asked if helping Tim Duncan win this last title was motivating. He replied, "Helping him win this next title is motivating."

I love Kawhi Leonard, and you should too.

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The Spurs made little tweaks to how they played Miami's blitz on their pick-and-rolls (which J. Gomez talks about in detail here) and while it didn't look like much, it worked brilliantly. First of all, they purposefully got into their sets faster, which set the Heat on their collective heels somewhat. Second, instead of making the pass to the wings on the trap, Parker and Ginobili both dribbled wide toward the baseline before reversing the ball with jump passes to the wing or to the top of the key. While those type of passes might seem risky, I think they saw on film that the pressure was coming on those low "pocket pass" attempts to the rolling man and not from behind them.

As a consequence, the Spurs hit 13 of their 16 threes from the wings or from the top of the key. Miami's game plan was to deny them the corner shot and the San Antonio adapted.

I also think that maybe the Heat figured that the Spurs Big Three would put more of an impetus on themselves of attacking and forcing up shots, looking for redemption for their combined 10-of-33 outing in Game 2. Instead, our stars attempted only 23 field goals in Game 3 --including an unfathomably low five from Parker-- and relied even more on their supporting cast to carry the freight and "get their names in the paper," to paraphrase Pop.

That was only one facet of the offensive success though. Another major key was the 19 offensive boards, 14 from the starting frontcourt alone, that not only obviously gave our scorers a second crack at it but more importantly had the Heat scrambling to find their men on defense. The easiest three point looks come off offensive boards. It didn't hurt that we stopped Miami from getting out and running by coming up with the board either.

In that vein, transition was also huge. The Heat coughed it up 16 times in the game, with 10 of those coming in the second half and seven of those in the third quarter, where the Spurs put some distance between themselves and Miami. The numbers would've been even higher if not for some wonky execution on a few 3-on-1s. The Spurs also ran like maniacs after every board, looking for quick-hitting opportunities. Duncan's 65-foot outlet pass to Leonard for a dunk was the quintessential example, but there were others.

Finally, the Spurs played a ton of small ball, about 24:30 worth of the 42 minutes in the game that mattered, before garbage time. I think Boris Diaw's back may have flared up on him because he was the only Spur who never took off his warm-ups all game, but his role was going to be limited in either case because there's no need for him to play against Miami.

The Heat don't go deep with big men, so there's nobody for Diaw to guard unless you want to buy him some minutes on James. He's not any kind of rebounder and a sluggish athlete, where against Miami you need to keep throwing fresh active bodies at them and be willing to run like mad up and down the floor. On offense Diaw is very reluctant to shoot, he hasn't been shooting well when he has fired, and he doesn't space the court as well as Matt Bonner does.

I think Pop is more than happy to go small vs. small against the Heat and the best way to prevent turnovers against them is to space the floor as much as possible and really stretch them out, especially on the backside for the aforementioned reversals to the wings. He also used Leonard as a screener high in small-ball alignments a few times, which seemed to confuse the Heat.

I doubt the Heat will make any major adjustments defensively for Game 4. They've seen the film, seen how soft and inattentive they played all night and will bring more effort Thursday night, but I still expect them to aggressively blitz and to make our role players beat them. Only if they suffer another loss on Thursday would a major change in philosophy (i.e. just going over or under the pick with one guy and daring Parker and Ginobili to shoot) be conceivable, and having two days between Games 4 and 5 would give enough time to implement it.

As long as Tony and Manu play smart and patiently there's no reason why the Spurs still can't score buckets aplenty against Miami, even if their three-point shooting regresses to the mean. Between Mike Miller, Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade and even Chris Bosh against Tim, there's more than enough poor defenders for them to pick on.

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On defense the headliners were Leonard, Green, and to a somewhat lesser degree, Duncan, but I think it got lost in the shuffle a bit how well Tiago Splitter performed. He more than held his own as the only big in small-ball lineups (+17) and didn't look at all uncomfortable or petrified even when switched up on LeBron. Splitter's length and mobility bothered the Heat's stars and he even came up with a couple of steals in the game. On offense Tiago had three thunderous impressive technical dunks and four boards. Dude even knew where to be as Miller threw a desperation pass falling out of bounds right to him for Tiago to flip it over to Green for another three.

There were several defensive highlights, but I can't decide, was Green's block on James to set up Neal's buzzer-beating three going into half the GREATEST BLOCK IN NBA HISTORY or was Duncan's block on Mario Chalmers that led to a pair of Green free throws the GREATEST BLOCK IN NBA HISTORY?

Of course a part of the reason the defense looks so good is because Wade is so adorably, laughably, ridiculously afraid to shoot the ball. The lengths he's going to either hot-potato it elsewhere or blindly drive into traffic is insane, and it seems as though hell will freeze over before he ever jacks up a three. You want to say to him, "Dude, you're a future Hall-of-Famer, how can you be this reluctant to shoot an open jumper?" and then you see him barely graze iron and you're like "Oh."

I don't know what happened to him but I'm hoping it lasts forever because I like Dwyane Wade about as much as Pop likes sideline interviews.

I think my favorite play of the game (I couldn't find a video or GIF anywhere) was when Wade tried to draw a foul in the third quarter and was called for a double-dribble, with Wade and James protesting the call by making the sign for... a double dribble. They looked like either a pair of dueling pianos players or guys who were pantomiming that they were going to write a sternly-worded e-mail to Stu Jackson for the unfair way they're being victimized by the league for these bogus "dribbling" rules.

On the other side of the spectrum is Miller, who's galloping up and down the floor with flames shooting out of his rear end. Forget missing a shot, he's not even touching rim. I don't know if I've seen anyone this locked in, and it makes me nervous as hell that our primary defenders on him are Parker and Neal.

I think we'll see even more Miller and/or Allen in there for Miami in Game 4. It's just too hard for their starting lineup to score right now. The Spurs literally don't respect any of their shooters and clog the paint to dramatic degrees.

Fortunately, Miller is atrocious on defense. The Heat are a lot like Memphis in that respect, where a lot of their players are good at one end of the floor and terrible on the other. I suppose a lot of teams are like that, actually. It's such a luxury for the Spurs that their best six are their best six, with only guys like Neal, Joseph and Bonner being real specialists.

Finally, a bit on that famous Chalmers-James pick-and-roll, which vexed the Spurs so in Game 2. This time around Pop made the simple adjustment of just blitzing it with Leonard, who mercilessly took the ball away from Chalmers twice like he was a younger brother messing with his Gameboy. (I'm old.) I bet if Chalmers looked really carefully, he'd have seen bits of Klay Thompson still stuck in between Leonard's teeth.

Have I mentioned that I love Kawhi Leonard?

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The big story going into Game 4 is obviously Parker's strained hamstring, and it's a serious enough injury where Parker's already declared that he wouldn't be playing if it was a regular season game. Maybe that's gamesmanship or maybe it's the truth, since Pop will always err on the side of caution when it comes to regular season dings.

Parker will be compromised somewhat, but ironically if there's ever a time for him to be limited in the Finals, it's against a Heat team whose main defensive focus is to get the ball out of his hands anyway. In case you didn't notice, Parker only had five field goal attempts in Game 3, and one of those was a crazy three off a semi-broken play. He doesn't have a really explosive scorer a la Russell Westbrook (or even a primary ball-handler like a Chris Paul) to guard against either.

Obviously you still want Parker to play and play well, but against a Miami team forcing him to be more of a quarterback and court general than the main weapon, he may not need his trademark burst. If the Heat switch things up and play him like the Grizzlies did, then I'll worry and see how he reacts to that.

Also, you have to wonder whether being stuck in traffic and arriving late to Game 3 contributed to this injury for Parker. Maybe he didn't have the time to do his usual elaborate stretching routine and had to rush his preparation. Who knows?

It would really suck to lose the Finals because the stupid city couldn't think ahead to not have major highway construction planned during Game 3 of the Finals. Maybe the city planner watches a lot of ESPN?

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This might sound crazy, but I don't think it'd be a terrible idea, if we need some spot minutes because of foul trouble or whatever, to give DeJuan Blair a look in Game 4. I really like what I've seen from him in terms of energy and activity when he's been in games, and even though it's only garbage time, the guy just looks really lively to me. Blair has historically fared well against teams that don't have much size and I just think the Heat are a good match-up for him, at least offensively. I wouldn't want to see him paired with Bonner by any means, but I can just see him scoring four straight buckets off pick-and-rolls with Manu as an exasperated Erik Spoelstra marches halfway across the floor before calling time out.

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It's kind of insane how in his own head James is right now. He's hesitating to take Duncan or Splitter off the dribble, much less Leonard or Green. He thinks about every jumper for five seconds before he shoots it, in a "I'm a four-time MVP, it's going to be really embarrassing if I clank this when I'm open by eight feet" kind of way. There was this one play with 5:48 to go in the fourth quarter, where he had the ball at the wing, just outside of the three-point line, hesitated, hesitated some more, and then took a step in to shoot the least-efficient shot in basketball, a 24-foot two-pointer. It was a brick.

That being said, I will defend James as a teammate for coming out supposedly tentatively in games. Apparently some people still don't get it, so I'll go to all caps. DWYANE WADE ONLY HAS A HALF OF BASKETBALL IN HIM. Look at the stats. He does NOTHING in the second halves of games. I think his knee stiffens up too much after the half-time break.

James is deferring to Wade early in the hope of getting something at all from him in these games and is also trying to get Chris Bosh going early too since he's a fragile confidence guy who will get lost if you don't feed him early.

Mainly though I think the angle that most people are missing is the simple fact that these guys, James in particular, are simply exhausted. You can tell they just don't have their same zip, their explosiveness and burst. James is boosting his rebounding stats by snatching a bunch of uncontested ones when all five Spurs have already sprinted back on defense, but he's lost Leonard on so many box-outs these past two games and flat out not competed on the glass at times.

Wade has fewer rebounds in this series than Cory Joseph. His defense has been embarrassingly bad. Bosh isn't challenging anybody in the paint.

With only one day between Game 3 and 4, I don't think these guys will magically have more juice or pep for Thursday, at least not for the full 48 minutes.

My guess is that LeBron will say "screw it," and tell himself he's not going to go down like this, and if he has to carry Wade and Bosh and "go back to his Cleveland days," than so be it. He will shoot early and often, he'll barrel toward the rim looking to draw fouls, and look to have a game similar to the one he put in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season at Boston.

Which will all be fine and good for the Spurs as long as no one else does anything. Cover Miller, cover Allen, don't give the Heat a bunch of free points in transition, and winning the "LeBron goes crazy game" would be the ultimate statement for Game 4 and send the Heat reeling into Game 5 completely out of ideas and devoid of hope.

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A meaningless stat, but your boring ol' Spurs had nine dunks in Game 3. The Heat Index had three. Tiago Splitter tied the Heat in dunks. (So sure, that LeBron block was amazing after all, I guess.)

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Finally, it was nice to see the home whites again. You people with your superstitions and jinxes. I hate those gray uniforms. They look like practice jerseys. I guess practice makes perfect.

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