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NBA Saturday: Leonard Showing He’s a Two-Way Threat

After being named Defensive Player of the Year this week, Kawhi Leonard showed he’s a two-way threat last night.

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It’s no secret that Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs is one of the top young talents in the NBA. He won last season’s Final’s MVP award and was named this season’s Defensive Player of the Year on Thursday. Many people acknowledge that as players like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili come closer to retiring, Leonard is the star player who will take over the team and guide it into the next era.

However, as good as Leonard already is, for many people there has always been a lingering doubt about whether he could ever be a true superstar. He is a hard worker, quiet and humble, which arguably makes him the perfect successor to Duncan. But in this day and age, the NBA is seemingly run by a plethora of talented, high usage point guards like Chris Paul, John Wall and Stephen Curry, just to name a few. And beyond point guards, the league is full of high usage, versatile small forwards who can play as a quasi-point guards, be a knock down shooter, a strong perimeter defender and a team’s best overall player, including LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony (though the latter has never been a great defender). Leonard has shown great improvements in his all around game over his short career, but he doesn’t quite fit the mold of the players mentioned above.

So while Leonard is extremely talented, rapidly improving and a worthy successor in San Antonio, the questions about his overall game continue to surround him.

However, on Friday night, Leonard eviscerated the Los Angeles Clippers, logging 32 points, four rebounds, one assist and three steals while shooting 13-of-18 from the field, including 3-of-5 from three-point range. And this wasn’t the sort of performance where a critic could suggest that Leonard was simply the beneficiary of the Spurs’ potent offensive system. Leonard scored on catch-and-shoot jumpers, one-on-one drives to the basket, turnaround jumpers and a ridiculous alley-oop that Blake Griffin didn’t even dare go after.

Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich briefly touched on Leonard’s expanded game after the win.

“He’s not a one-trick pony kind of guy,” Popovich said ESPN Los Angeles. “He’s something else.”

Tim Duncan echoed the sentiment.

“I don’t know if he came out here tonight to say he’s more than just a defender,” Duncan said to ESPN Los Angeles. “He was great on both ends. You know what? He did it the right way. He stayed within our offense. He got some shots going early on. Then, I think he just got comfortable and kind of got on a roll. Then, you [saw] his level of difficulty going up, shooting over double teams, fading away, making plays. From there, it was just off to the races. He continues to impress me every time he is out there. In a situation like this, it is obviously great for us, but it is impressive to watch.”

You know you’re playing pretty well when someone as great as Duncan is singing your praises. Through three postseason games, Leonard is averaging 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.7 steals per game while shooting a blistering 60 percent from beyond-the-arc. He has increased his usage percentage from 23 percent to 27.1 percent and is asserting himself as the Spurs’ most important offensive player. He is also registering an absurd 70.6 percent true shooting percentage and a 30.9 Player Efficiency Rating.

Now, of course this is a small sample size and he is playing against a L.A. Clippers team that relies on a 35-year-old Matt Barnes to be their lockdown wing-defender. But still, the maturation in Leonard’s game is clear, and it’s bad news for the Spurs’ upcoming opponents, assuming they advanced past this round. The immense development in Leonard’s game in such a short period of time may come as somewhat of a shock to all of us, but it makes perfect sense to Leonard’s former college coach Steve Fisher.

“What a phenomenal game,” Fisher told USA TODAY Sports after Game 3.”At both ends of the floor just incredible. If you’re around him like we were for two years, you saw the work ethic that he had and the competitiveness to where you knew that he was going to continue to get better. But to see him play like this, I just smile and shake my head. It’s absolutely incredible. But he’s got that inner confidence. He’s good, and he knows he’s good.

“I’ve never had a guy work the way he does when nobody is watching. He just wants to get in the gym, doesn’t want anybody to know. But he wants to be in that gym 24-7. And he’s in there to work on his game. He doesn’t just put in time. He’s working.”

Before this series, it was understandable that some people may be reluctant to officially pass the torch in San Antonio to Leonard. He is still just 23 years old, he isn’t a vocal leader and his role has been more akin to Draymond Green’s with the Golden State Warriors than say Kevin Durant’s with the Oklahoma City Thunder. That, and so long as Duncan is wearing a Spurs uniform, it is difficult to crown someone else as San Antonio’s best, and most important, player. But that is what Leonard is at this point.

Leonard has been an elite wing-defender for some time now, but after last night’s performance, it is crystal clear that he is also a major threat on offense as well. As Duncan pointed out, Leonard did most of his early damage in Game 3 within the Spurs’ offensive system. But once he made a few shots and realized that no one on the Clippers could guard him, he started taking more one-on-one shot attempts, and took over the game. Leonard may not have such an easy time on offense if he faces teams like the Memphis Grizzlies or Golden State Warriors, but at this point it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise if even those teams couldn’t slow him down.

The Spurs annihilated the Clippers on a night where Duncan, Parker and Ginobili went for a combined 12 points on 6-of-19 shooting from the field. That is a testament to the Spurs’ balanced offensive attack, Popovich’s adjustments since Game 1 that have left Doc Rivers and the Clippers without any answers and most importantly to Leonard’s brilliance on both ends of the court.

Leonard may have been named the DPOY on Thursday, but on Friday, through his breakout performance, he showed us all that he is so much more than just the league’s best defensive player.

Adam Silver Considering Solutions to the Hack-a-Shaq Strategy

Thankfully, Game 3 between the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers did not feature the dreaded “hack-a-Shaq” strategy that has caught so much attention in the first round of these playoffs.

However, the issue of what to do about this tactic is one that needs to be addressed, which NBA Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged yesterday.

“It’s something that I’m on the fence about,” Silver told ESPNDallas.com on Friday. “My thought used to be that we should definitely change the rule, and then having sat through several general managers meetings, competition meetings and having heard from some of the game’s very best, the view is the players should hit their free throws. That’s changed my view a little bit.

“Having said that, when I watch some of these games on television, frankly, it’s not great entertainment for our fans, and that’s important as well. What I’ve said is we have another general managers meeting coming up in May, we have a competition committee meeting in June, and I’m sure it’s going to be a hot topic of discussion. Then, we have an owners meeting in July, so I think at all three of those meetings we’re going to be having full-throated conversations about what the right rules should be going forward.”

Silver addressed the biggest arguments on both sides of this issue. On one hand, it’s not against the rules and if a player cannot hit his free throws consistently, it is not up to league to shield him from that weakness. On the other hand, at its core, the NBA is an entertainment league and no one enjoys watching DeAndre Jordan shoot 15 free throws in a row over the course of five minutes of game time.

Popovich himself said that he does not like the strategy, but he will use it so long as it is available to him.

“I hate it,” said Popovich to ESPNChicago.com’s Nick Friedell earlier this year. “I think it’s awful. I hate doing it. Seriously. I think it’s a pain in the neck, fans don’t like it, I don’t like it, nobody likes it. It disrupts the flow of the game. If there’s an equitable way to get rid of it, I’m all for it.

“But it’s part of the game. It’s part of the rules now and if you think somebody can’t shoot a free throw you might as well take advantage of it. If you think somebody can’t shoot you don’t guard him the same way. So [the strategy’s] fair, it’s just kind of ugly I think.”

Whether the NBA chooses to allow the strategy moving forward or implement a new rule to get rid of it, it is nice to hear that it will discussed at length this offseason.

As for proposals on how to fix this issue, how about giving teams the option of declining free throws and instead taking the ball out of bounds when a player is fouled off the ball in the final three minutes of each quarter? This approach isn’t overly complicated and it takes away the incentive to use the strategy. Of course, this shields bad free throw shooters from having to make crunch time free throws, but it does not give that player’s team any additional bonus or unintended benefit and prevents the stagnant, slow game-play that fans currently suffer.

Of course, the NBA will go through a long, comprehensive process in figuring out how to best address this issue and any rule put in place will probably be more intricate than my stated proposal. Let’s just hope there is some sort of compromise that prevents fans from having to watch terrible free throw shooting for long stretches during what should be incredibly entertaining games.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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