Before Kawhi Leonard was anointed the NBA's next great two-way wing, another young star was the recipient of that hype. After the Indiana Pacers had forced LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh's Miami Heat to 2 long series' in 2012-13 and 2013-14, it was Paul George who was the consensus Wing of the Future.
And what wasn't there to love about George? At 6'9, he had shades of Tracy McGrady in his game. He was quick, springy, with the silky handle of a guard. George shot well from deep, considering his volume of attempts, and seemed to thrive under the pressure that was carrying his team's offensive load every single night. And he also was a great defender, using his length and quickness to frustrate LeBron -- using the term "frustrate" loosely, because at that point LeBron was at the absolute peak of his power.
But then, just as George in the midst of the hype, it seemed to be taken away. Following the Pacers' loss to the Heat in 2014, the San Antonio Spurs went on to defeat the Big 3 of the Heat in a Finals rematch, led by their own young defense-oriented wing, Kawhi Leonard. Then in the summer of 2014, George broke his leg in gruesome fashion at a Team USA basketball scrimmage.
With George out of the picture, the league was on the lookout for another young wing to rise up. Who else could be expected to counter the greatness of LeBron, or Oklahoma City's all-world scorer, Kevin Durant?
Leonard was a natural fit. He had already defended LeBron in the Finals, playing at such a high level that they gave him the Finals MVP for his efforts. (LBJ still averaged 28.2 points on 57.1% from the field, 51.9% from 3, and also averaged 7.8 boards, 4 assists, and 2 steals.) Fans and writers began wondering what he could do if he was given the keys to the Spurs' offense instead of just being a cog in it.
Since then, Leonard has crafted a game reminiscent of a young Kobe Bryant. He's an all-world defender, but has also become an offensive tactician, and now knows how to manipulate a defense to his liking. On a deeper level, basketball is his obsession. You can't watch a Spurs game without hearing anecdotes about just how many hours of work Leonard spends in the gym.
Because they're so similar in terms of being young two-way stars who have the fates of their franchises in their hands, it's always fun to watch George and Leonard go head to head.
Despite the similarities between their career paths and style of play, their mindsets on the court make for an interesting contrast. George s a high-usage player, and takes it into his own hands to divide shots between himself and his teammates. He wears down his opponents with a series of hesitations, cross-overs, and hard drives to the basket, mixed with sinking difficult jumpers. He puts the onus on himself to support the Pacers' offense every night, and will take as many shots as necessary to do it.
Leonard takes a much more cerebral approach. There is no wasted motion in his offense. It looks a though there is just one logical decision that leads to the next, all designed to get the best shot available. If that means he runs the show, fine. If it's LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, or Manu Ginobili driving the offense for a stretch, that works too. He's a versatile scorer, able to post up, drive, or shoot -- all proficiently.
On Monday, we got an excellent one-on-one battle between the two. They each scored 23 points, but none came easily. Any time one of them had the ball, the other was closing out on the catch, and getting into their shorts on defense. It was a high-intensity game within a game; two young athletes with tremendous amounts of potential trying to prove themselves against the player they're compared to the most.
George's team got the better of Leonard's this time, but the best is still yet to come for them. Every season it seems less that the discussion is around whether these wings will ever reach their potential and be the best at their positions, and more about when it'll happen. Once LeBron and KD hang it up, these guys (along with Jimmy Butler) have next.
LaMarcus Aldridge - 23 points on 9-20 shooting, 12 boards, 2 blocks, 1 steal
In the second half of the season, Aldridge has been dominant. He was the catalyst for the Spurs' comeback, scoring 17 of his points in the 3rd and 4th quarters. He was aggressive in getting to the rim, snatching rebounds with ferocity, and attacking the rim on putbacks. Defensively, he had a nice night as well. He moved well laterally, cutting off drives and recovering to his man. He was a game-changer, and gave SA their shot to win.
NUMBERS ON THE BOARD
32: The amount of points the Spurs scored in the first half, on 26% from the field. Quite obviously, that's not what you want to see, and it put them in a huge hole.
23: Points each for Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. It didn't come on the most efficient shooting night (Kawhi shot 9-23 from the field, LMA 9-20), but the Spurs' stars at least got their numbers. Even though they lost, it's always nice to see this tandem work well together.
14.3: The Spurs' shooting percentage from 3-point land. They couldn't buy a basket from deep for the longest time. Kawhi went 1-7 from beyond the arc. Danny Green went 0-5. Patty Mills, who had an otherwise great night, finishing 6-13 from the field for 17 points, went 3-10 from 3.
- The Spurs' first half was absolutely putrid. After only scoring 32 points through the first 24, they were lucky to only be down 13 points. That lead wasn't insurmountable, as Kawhi, LMA, and Mills all put together a fantastic 2nd half. San Antonio made their run, but the hole they had to dig out of was just too deep to climb out of. Against good teams like the Pacers, you can't survive on only 1 or 2 good quarters of basketball.
- Monta Ellis still has it all. As the Spurs came back in a hurry, it was Ellis that drilled shots to keep them at arm's length late in the game. Ellis had 6 in the final 3 minutes, including a back-breaking driving layup with 26 seconds left. He finished with a game-high 26 points on 8-13 shooting, as well as 3 assists, 2 blocks, and 1 steal.
- Given San Antonio's inability to put the ball in the basket on Monday, new addition Kevin Martin would have been a welcome presence. A professional bucket-getter, Martin potentially could have provided a scoring kick, or maybe at least knocked down an open 3, to keep the game closer in the first half.