MEMPHIS — The Spurs found themselves in a true test of their playoff mettle for the first time in their first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies at FedEx Forum on Friday night.
It was the sort of game in which truly great players take over and by the time Kawhi Leonard put the finishing touches on the best post-season game of his five-year Spurs career he had cemented his status as one of the NBA’s truly elite two-way players.
In a 96-87 win that gives the Spurs a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, Leonard matched his career playoff high of 32 points. He made 11-of-22 shots, including 6-of-9 3-pointers, grabbed seven rebounds, blocked five shots and had four steals.
That he did it against one of the most physical, intense defensive units in the league, and against one of the best individual defenders, made it even more impressive.
What the basketball loving world is seeing is the emergence of one of the truly dominant players in league history.
If that seems an audacious assertion, consider the company he keeps with his statistics from Game 3. He became the first player since Tim Duncan, in 2009, to score 30 points in a playoff game without a turnover. He joins Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon, Milwaukee Bucks great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1974) and Boston’s Kevin Garnett (2004) on an exclusive list of players to score 32 points, block five shots and record four steals in a playoff game.
He is the first to do so in a road playoff game.
His teammates were slack-jawed at his performance, as were the Grizzlies.
“Sometimes we take it for granted,” said veteran guard Manu Ginobili. “What he did today was incredible. Not only the six threes, or the 32 points but five blocks, four steals, and loose balls – all the little things the role players do. He’s a star and he still contributes all those things.”
Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger literally shook his head as he described a Leonard field goal, a 10-foot jumper over uber-defender Tony Allen, that pretty much put the game on ice for the Spurs with 2:35 remaining.
“That was silly,” Joerger said. “I mean, he hung there for a while and then came down and then clutched twice and then let it go. I mean, hats off to the guy. He’s a heck of a player and he just keeps getting better and better. Tony turned him three times on that play; banged him, banged him, banged. I think Tony Allen is the best perimeter defender in the league and he made a great play.
“He’s a bail-out player for them, as is the case right there.”
Ginobili put it in terms any fan, sophisticated or otherwise, can understand.
“He’s one of the top candidates for MVP if Steph (Curry) is not having a ridiculous season.”
Indeed, Golden State’s Curry, the NBA’s top scorer, is an overwhelming favorite to win his second straight Most Valuable Player Award. But Leonard already has been named Defensive Player of the Year for a second consecutive season, capable of dominating at both ends of the court.
Leonard’s excellence was required because, for the first time in a playoff series that had produced two ridiculously easy the Spurs on Friday found themselves in a real battle.
Memphis, which had led for only three seconds of Games 1 and 2, led in the fourth quarter of Game 3 and trailed by just two points, 83-81, with 4:40 remaining.
Then Leonard took over. He scored eight of his 32 points in the final 3:41. His sixth 3-pointer, with 1:11 left, was a dagger that stretched the Spurs lead to the final margin.
“Kawhi is a great player,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “He’s not afraid to put himself in situations where the shots are big and The shots are important.”
Leonard never seems overly impressed with anything he has done. His monster game, he said, was “just the way it went,” a result of coming out aggressive and hitting some early shots that gave him confidence.
The Spurs know better, and so do the Grizzlies. With a chance to get a sweep that can give them as much as a week before their first second-round playoff game, don’t doubt they will rely on Leonard to complete a task that is important for the league’s oldest team.
*Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.