Everything the San Antonio Spurs are doing in the NBA Finals is a tribute to their entire basketball operation. This production is bigger than any one player.
Yet if anyone did more than his share to deliver the most stunning two-game sequence in Finals history, that player clearly is forward Kawhi Leonard.
Check out his totals from Games 3 and 4 in Miami: 49 points, 18 rebounds, five steals and five blocked shots.
Mix in Leonard’s history of competing for San Diego State against BYU and Utah in the Mountain West and the fact he was drafted one slot after the Jazz made their second first-round pick in 2011, and his story carries considerable local interest.
Leonard was a focal point of those high-profile games between the Aztecs and Jimmer Fredette’s Cougars in the 2010-11 season, with BYU sweeping the home-and-home series before SDSU took the conference tournament title in Las Vegas. He was considered a definite lottery pick early in the draft process, but started sliding down the board.
The Spurs became interested in him in the late stages of their preparation, as detailed in a Yahoo! story this week. They ultimately traded guard George Hill, considered a vital part of the team, to Indiana to acquire Leonard with the 15th pick. The Spurs were worried the Jazz would take Leonard at No. 12, but they went with Alec Burks, joining Enes Kanter (No. 3) in Utah’s draft class.
Kevin O’Connor was directing the Jazz’s draft then; Dennis Lindsey was San Antonio’s assistant general manager, working with R.C. Buford.
So while the Jazz are often second-guessed for taking Gordon Hayward ahead of Paul George in 2011, Leonard’s emergence is creating another what-if? in their recent draft history.
The Spurs won those two games in Miami by a total of 40 points, so no individual performance can be said to have made the difference. But Leonard played a huge role in demoralizing the Heat, and there’s no doubt he has been instrumental in helping the Spurs return to the Finals these past two seasons. They had gone four years without a Finals appearance before he arrived, and then were knocked off by Oklahoma City in the 2012 Western Conference finals, which supposedly marked the end of San Antonio’s reign.
But here are the Spurs, on the verge of a title, going into Sunday’s Game 5 at home. Assistant coach Jim Boylen, the former University of Utah coach, and assistant GM Scott Layden, a longtime Jazz coach and executive, are about to collect championship rings. They can thank Buford and Lindsey for a big assist in landing Leonard three years ago.