So, THAT'S why people make such a big deal about superstars like LeBron James. I totally get it now.
I don't mean to be sarcastic or flip, I really don't, but when you watch basketball from the prism of a Spurs perspective, the concept of a full-fledged superstardom is as foreign to us as our roster seems to everyone else. We've been so indoctrinated with the philosophy of team basketball, drunk so many gallons of Pop's all-for-one, one-for-all Kool-Aid, that the very notion that there's another way to skin the proverbial cat seems anathema to us.
In beating the Heat, the Spurs became the Heat
Of all the weird stats from Game 3, here's the craziest: Matt Bonner shot two free throws in the first quarter of an NBA Finals.
Tuesday night in Miami, in Game 3 of the freakin' NBA Finals, Kawhi Leonard, 22, was a superstar. He was the Spurs' best offensive player. He was their best defensive player. He scored by bullying people in the paint, he scored on drives, he canned practically every three, contested or no, and he earned trips to the line. When the Heat sent bodies at him, he put it on the floor and got the ball to the right guy, every time. On defense he shut down the other team's best player, got steals, blocks, deflections, forced jump balls and chased down plays in transition to force missed layups. He singlehandedly snuffed every Heat rally, one way or another, one end of the floor or another. He played the way you'd expect an NBA star plays in high school, dominating games to the degree that it seems unfair to the other kids.
Simply put, he did everything.
Of course, it's not like the Spurs don't have stars. They have three Hall-of-Famers after all, and the youngest of them, Tony Parker, is still capable of busting out with a 30-point game every now and then, but the diminutive Parker can't make this kind of difference defensively.
Tim Duncan, remarkable even at 38, is capable of a 25-15-5-5 kind of night and he might well be the front-runner for Finals MVP through three games, but it's different for a big man. It's a perimeter-oriented league now and Duncan still needs people to give him the ball. He can only score from so many spots on the floor and not from three. He can't shut down the other team's best guy either.
Then there's Manu Ginobili, who despite being a year younger than Duncan looks even closer to the end. He's still a difference-making player, one of the most destructive offensive players in the league, but physically he can't do it for more than 24-26 minutes any more, and doesn't have it in his legs to bring it night after night. He still scores in all manner of ways, but is dependent on people knocking down the shots off his passes to truly shine. Defensively he can make plays, but is too slight of frame to stick on the other team's best for extended periods.
That leaves Leonard. I wrote before this series that he's my pick for Finals MVP and I'm not sure the Spurs can win it without him playing at that level. He's the guy who can do it all, from every spot on the court, at both ends, against anybody. He doesn't have to match James point for point or play for play, but that match-up can't be one-sided either. He's got to make James work for every bucket on one end and absolutely punish the Heat if they put anyone besides LeBron on him on the other. It almost has to be Pavlovian for the Spurs at this point, Oh, James is guarding Parker? We're getting the ball to Whi. That's the biggest mismatch on the floor.
Here's what struck me last night: LeBron James has played a lot of minutes in his career. He's 29, at the absolute peak of his powers, but he's been in the league since he was 18. He's played 842 regular season games and another 156 in the playoffs, for 998 overall. He's totaled 33,276 regular season minutes and another 6,638 in the playoffs, meaning he'll crack 40,000 by the time these Finals are over, unless you're really optimistic. He rang up 2,902 minutes during the regular season and another 684 so far in these playoffs, which adds up 3,586.
Compare that to Leonard's 22 years of age. He played just 1,923 minutes during the year and another 663 so far in the playoffs, 21 fewer than James, despite the Spurs needing to play three more playoff games than Miami just to get to the Finals. His current season total is 2,586 minutes, exactly a thousand fewer than James.
James was at his best in Game 2 after he had two days of rest after Game 1, and even then he, A) did his damage outside of the paint in the second half, and B) benefited from Leonard being in foul trouble for most of the game. In Game 3, with only one day's rest and with Leonard stuck to him the whole time, James didn't have that same level of energy. He matched Leonard point-for-point in the first quarter, but attempted just eight shots in the final three quarters, never got to the line and turned it over seven times. He repeatedly tried to post up Leonard, and the world's best post-up player could do nothing against the Spurs, with Duncan often waiting for him at the rim to back up Leonard.
And if you think the lack of rest hurt James, it doesn't even begin to tell the story of what happened to Dwyane Wade, who was positively terrorized by the velociraptor swipes of the younger, fresher Danny Green. And other Heat graybeards like Ray Allen, Chris Andersen, Rashard Lewis and James Jones were struggling mightily to move their feet and compete defensively against younger counterparts.
Game 4 is another must-win for the Heat. Again, there's one day of rest. The venue and the history favors them, but the schedule favors the younger, hungrier, springier Spurs. Some pundits might label them as the old geezer team in this series, and Gregg Popovich slyly plays along with that false narrative, but if you're paying attention, you'll see that aside from Duncan and Ginobili, the Spurs are the younger team. And San Antonio is far less dependent on Tim and Manu than the Heat are on their stars.
The Spurs have the 22-year-old do-everything star, not Miami. Having a Kawhi Leonard on your team is pretty neat.
A perimeter superstar on the Spurs? Seems almost unfair.