On Wednesday night, the San Antonio Spurs 104-82 defeat of the upstart Portland Trailblazers allowed them to clinch their third straight Western Conference Finals appearance and their 9th since 1997-98.
The climb back to the Western Conference Finals seemed fairly easy for a team that was completely shocked and devastated at the results of last years NBA Finals.
The emotional and physical draining that came from Ray Allen's monumental three pointer and Miami's eventual winning of the championship had many thinking San Antonio couldn't muster up enough energy to wreck havoc on the league once again. Many assumed that the taste of defeat would be too bitter, and that hangover would be too forceful, forever lingering in the mind's of San Antonio and their stars.
During the 2013 NBA Finals, the world was introduced to defensive stalwart Kawhi Leonard, who surprised many in the basketball world with his beyond stellar play. Leonard was 3rd on the team in scoring at 14.6 PPG, 2nd in rebounding with 11.1 RPG and averaged an impressive 2.0 SPG. Leonard shouldered a major defensive load as he competed fiercely with superstar LeBron James, attempting to steer the series in a favorable direction for San Antonio.
This year has enabled the desolation that stemmed from that 2013 Finals series to vanish, as Kawhi Leonard's game has impressively evolved. Leonard is learning how to extend his dominance to the offensive side of the ball, as he tends to conquer all on the defensive end with his massive hands, fantastic discipline and defensive awareness.
In the Spurs twenty-one postseason games last year, Leonard had eight games with 15 points or more, through San Antonio's twelve postseason games this year, he has seven such games. He's averaging a playoff career high 14 points per game this year, making him San Antonio's 3rd leading scorer behind Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.
Along with those 14 points per game, Kawhi is snatching down 7.5 rebounds per game which is 3rd on the team as well. He's shooting a robust 52% from the floor, and 41% from behind the arc.
Rattling off statistics doesn't properly illustrate Kawhi's growth as a player, specifically on the offensive end of the floor. He's shown improved ball handling ability, he's slashed to the basket strongly and has even added somewhat of a post-up game to his repertoire.
He consistently gives a huge boost to the Spurs defensively and offensively, and when he plays well San Antonio is seemingly impossible to beat. Gregg Popovich has branded Leonard as the "future," and the Spurs "face of the franchise" after Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan depart from the comfy confines of the AT&T Center.
If San Antonio emerges as the eventual league champion, much of this success will be accredited to Coach Pop, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Being crowed champs once again will allow the Spurs to dance off triumphantly into the sunset, forever cementing their legacy as one of the greatest dynasties professional sports has ever seen.
However, in their hunt for a championship, don't forget the importance and brilliance of Kawhi Leonard, who has indicated that he will continue the dominant string of Spurs basketball when his future hall of fame counterparts retire.
Which player has impressed you the most this postseason? Share thoughts and opinions on Twitter (@wcboyer24) and continue to support The Basketball Society.