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One Year Later, Kawhi Leonard Seizes Opportunity

After coming up short during the 2013 NBA Finals, Kawhi Leonard’s career-high Game 3 performance was perfectly timed.

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Curious and alert, the media invaded the San Antonio Spurs’ locker room prior to Game 3 of the 2014 NBA Finals, but nary a soul was in sight.

From then, even 75 minutes before tip-off at Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena, it was obvious that Gregg Popovich’s team would do their talking on the basketball court.

The quiet and reserved Kawhi Leonard stood at the doorway of the crowded locker room, staring, perhaps in bewilderment, at the obstacle course of human bodies that he had to navigate. Without saying a word, he entered. He zigzagged his way to his locker and sat down. He unlaced his worn-in, black and white Air Jordans and put on a pair of grey flip flops.

And in an instant, he was gone—just like the Miami HEAT’s opportunity at prevailing.

Leonard led a first quarter Spurs blitzkrieg, scoring 16 of the team’s 41 points en route to a career-high 29-point night. When it was all said and done, Leonard had shot 10-for-13 from the field, yet still managed to play suffocating defense, partially evidenced by his two steals and two blocks.

Collectively, for the first time in these Finals, the Spurs returned to the scene of a crime. Leonard ensured they wouldn’t leave Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena without being somewhat exonerated.

“That’s why we’re here again,” Leonard said after the Spurs obliterated the HEAT en route to a 111-92 win.

“We knew we threw away a game,” he said, referring to last season’s Game 6 collapse for which he was partially responsible. “And we’re back at it. We’re trying to get this series.”

For sure, on this night, Leonard did his part.

His stoic demeanor belies his competitive spirit, so, one year ago, when he stepped to the free throw line with the fate of his team in his huge hands, the casual onlooker had no idea just how sweaty Leonard’s palms were.

With two free-throws and 19.4 seconds standing between him and the Larry O’Brien trophy, Leonard stepped to the line—his mouth dry, his heart racing.

Like he had done thousands of times prior to that point, he went to the free-throw line, took a deep breath and three low dribbles. He released the biggest shot of his life, but the ball simply would not stay down. That fateful point that failed to materialize was ultimately the difference. Rather than holding on and ending the 2013 NBA Finals in six games, the Spurs were forced into playing an extra five minutes.

Helplessly, they watched as Ray Allen drilled one of the most dramatic shots in NBA history.

From there, it was on to Game 7, and by the time it had ended, the HEAT would be NBA champions, twice over. For Leonard, the 19 points and 16 rebounds he amassed in Game 7 gave him no comfort. It was that critical missed free-throw in the waning moments of Game 6 and the go-ahead three-pointer that he missed with 1:26 remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 7 that stuck with him.

After a long summer and a spirited training camp, on a brisk November Sunday in New York City, Leonard’s teammate, Danny Green, spoke candidly with me about the pain that they had collectively endured.

Green recounted the post-game team dinner after the Spurs got close enough to the Larry O’Brien trophy to be blinded by its sparkle. He spoke about the long and arduous odyssey that the team collectively agreed to traverse in unison.

And Green spoke about being haunted.

“It’s something that will always stay with you,” Green said at the time. “You’ve gotta play for all 48 minutes, because, as we all saw, everything can change in 28 seconds.”

Yes, what transpired in last season’s NBA Finals can never be taken back, but this year’s NBA championship can be taken, and the Spurs put themselves in a good position with Tuesday’s dominant win.

Like the consummate Spur, Leonard goes about his business. Day in, day out, his zealous preparation and hard work have made him one of the league’s more respected swingmen. From a long, long time ago, the Spurs seemingly knew what they were getting.

“I kinda got an early look at him,” Tim Duncan said of Leonard on Tuesday night. “I thought he had a lot of work to do. He wasn’t shooting the ball like he does now, but Pop and the guys saw something in him and they allowed him to kind of develop and find his own way.”

And on Tuesday night, the Spurs followed.

“He continues to evolve year after year,” Duncan continued. “This year, you can see when he gets in a groove like that, he can be special.”

Indeed, he can be.

To this point, Leonard has shown himself to be the perimeter version of Duncan—a fundamentally sound player whose game has no immediately discernible weakness and who is more inclined to shy away from the spotlight than bask in it. With a deceptively quick first step, ability to get to the rim, better-than-advertised leaping ability, impressive post-moves and sharp three-point shot, Leonard is a nightmare to defend. He willingly moves the basketball and believes and trusts in his system, his coach and his teammates.

In short, he is the perfect player for Duncan to potentially ride to the sunset the same way that David Robinson did with him many moons ago.

Before our very eyes, Leonard has quietly grown into one of the league’s more well-rounded neophytes. His progression and quiet determination has been on display for all to see.

“He’s got to be one of our better players on the court or we’re not good enough,” Popovich said. “That’s just the way it is. He’s got that kind of talent.”

In Game 3, it was on full display. And if Leonard continues to play such effective basketball, it will go a long way toward determining this year’s champion.

What’s passed is past, and in 2013, the Spurs came as close to winning a championship as humanly possible without walking away with it in the end.

Now, in the sequel, though they cannot rewrite history, they can attach an addendum.

Here and now, retribution awaits.

One year later, Kawhi Leonard hopes to right last year’s wrong.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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