Kawhi Leonard is where drama goes to die.
The Spurs have had a string of forgettable blowouts of late, games that were over while the echoes of the national anthem were still reverberating through the rafters of the AT&T Center, but this Easter Sunday tilt with the Warriors was supposed to be different. As you're probably aware, Golden State, winner of 12 in a row and the owners of the best record in the NBA by a mile, have bullied the rest of the league, compiling the kind of scoring differential we haven't seen since the 1996 Chicago Bulls. Before the game Gregg Popovich was marveling at the job Steve Kerr's done with them in his rookie campaign as a head coach, highlighting the fact that he's got them atop the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency where most coaches would kill to be one or the other.
It was by no means a given that the Dubs would come away with another notch on their belts --they haven't won a regular season game in San Antonio in the Tim Duncan Era after all-- but at the least you thought the Spurs would struggle to extend their streak of 19 consecutive games in which they've held a double-digit lead.
It took all of 5:46, after Leonard went coast-to-coast and slammed it home after swiping his third steal up to that point for the Spurs to put the Warriors 10 points arrears. Golden State never got closer. There were zero ties, zero lead changes, zero chance for the best team in the league to make a game of it. Simply put, Leonard ruined them, ruined everything they were trying to do at both ends of the floor, and made it look breathtakingly easy while doing so.
"Kawhi was magnificent at both ends of the court," said Popovich afterward in his typical, understated fashion. "He is really playing confidently, but he hasn't forgotten to predicate his game on the defense and on the boards. It kind of fuels him offensively."
The Warriors, Kerr most of all, offered similar praise, with Kerr --who happens to coach MVP front-runner Stephen Curry-- stating that Leonard was the best player on the court and Draymond Green, the odds-on favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year, saying that Leonard would have his vote for the honor. Fans serenaded Leonard with "MVP" chants while he was at the free-throw line, but Leonard quickly dismissed that as a stretch when asked about it.
What isn't a stretch though is that Leonard is quickly becoming a superduperstar in front of our eyes. He's clearly the team's best player now, it's not even close, and a top-10 guy in the league as well. In a draft class where Kyrie Irving was picked first of all, Leonard's the best player, without a doubt. Not to go all Bill Simmons on you, but imagine a hypothetical scenario where R.C. Buford and Cavaliers GM LeBron James are on the phone and the notion of a Irving for Leonard swap is raised. Buford politely ends the call, saying he's got to watch some video of a 17-year-old Slovenian.
Curry, who's become a YouTube sensation even more so for his wicked dribbling displays than his otherworldly shooting prowess, became the latest to learn the hard way that trying to crossover Leonard in the open court is akin to skinny-dipping in the Amazon river with a couple of open cuts on your body. Kawhi's arms are venomous anacondas. Each of his fingers, a ravenous piranha. He is become death, as the kids like to say.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Leonard's game, the career-high seven steals, the game-high 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting, the five rebounds and three steals, is that he did it all in just 24:23. So systematic and thorough was the Spurs domination of the Warriors, even without Tiago Splitter and his chronically edema-weakened right calf, was that the fourth quarter was just extended garbage time, as so many Golden State games have been all season long.
The Warriors briefly cut a 23-point deficit to 13 early in the third quarter when Curry detonated with 13 points in 1:55, hitting a series of bombs, but Popovich simply responded by switching Leonard onto Curry and that was it. He took just two shots the rest of the way, missing both, before sitting out the fourth.
Leonard said he didn't take any particular satisfaction from picking Curry off three times or cooling him down. "He's a great player, but I just get joy in my heart when I'm playing the game out there," Leonard said, adding, "I'm just trying to do my job."
Few of Curry's teammates did their jobs on this night. Fellow "Splash Brother" Klay Thompson was a complete no-show, as he often has been against the Spurs, with six points on 3-of-11. Green was just 2-of-11 despite no one on the Spurs seeming well-suited to check him. Most damning of all was Harrison Barnes' stat line, with him being completely bageled by Leonard -- 0 points, 0 rebounds and 0 assists -- for the first three quarters. Barnes, you might recall, was picked eight slots ahead of Leonard in the 2011 draft.
By contrast, Leonard was hardly the only Spur to star against the Warriors. Not only did San Antonio have the best player on the court, but the best Green as well, with Danny nailing 4-of-6 threes and adding three blocks in transition. Duncan had the quietest 19 points you'll ever see, on 6-of-7 shooting and 7-of-8 from the stripe, but passed Paul Pierce for 18th on the all-time scoring list. Cory Joseph, with nine points and six boards in 18 minutes and Aron Baynes were solid off the bench.
The playoffs may not be a formality after all. The Spurs not only are the only team in the league to have beaten the Warriors twice, but they've handed them two of their three worst defeats all year. They still have to prove they can play like this on the road, but they've definitely got the Warriors spooked, with both Kerr and Curry admitting that if and when Leonard guards Curry they have to look elsewhere for offense.
As far as your humble narrator is concerned, Leonard has pretty much wrecked the concept of "Your Three Stars." The whole premise behind it is that the Spurs are supposed to be so deep that different guys would step up on different nights. However, since Leonard's come off his hand injury, he's been their best player by my estimation in 20 of their 37 games and their second or third in a handful of others. He has 148 "YTS Points" despite missing 18 games and there's still five to go. Duncan led the Spurs last year with 131.
Leonard just ruins everything.
Your Three Stars:
3. Tim Duncan (98 pts)
2. Danny Green (72 pts)
1. Kawhi Leonard (148 pts)
[Players get 5 points for first star of the game, 3 points for second star and 1 point for third star. The numbers in parentheses are their accumulated totals for the season.]