- Matt Slocum/AP
Kawhi Leonard made the NBA’s MVP race just a little bit tighter on Monday night.
In a big 112-110 win over the Houston Rockets, Leonard showed why he may be the most dominant two-way player in the league, carrying the Spurs in the game’s final seconds to pick up a big win.
With 30 seconds remaining, and the Rockets up by one, Leonard took control, first pulling up for a gutsy 3-pointer that put the Spurs up by two.
Then, about seven seconds later, as James Harden attempted a layup on the other end, Leonard not only fought through a screen to continue his chase of Harden but also executed a perfectly timed jump and pinned Harden’s layup attempt against the glass. The Spurs controlled the boards and held on for the win.
Manu Ginobili’s face said it all:
Leonard finished with 39 points on 12-for-18 shooting, including 4-for-5 from 3-point range, with six rebounds, five assists, one steal, and two blocks.
After the game, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made a convincing case for why Leonard could be MVP.
“The block is what makes him special,” Popovich said. “Obviously, the three, you know Harden makes threes. Kawhi makes threes. This guy makes threes – that guy makes threes. Steph [Curry] makes threes. Everybody does that. But I don’t know who goes to the other end and does what he does – not that many people on a consistent basis, an entire game, game after game.”
In a season in which Harden and Russell Westbrook have dominated the MVP conversation, it’s getting tougher to overlook Leonard, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year. The Spurs are poised to make the playoffs for the 20th straight season and post their 18th straight 50-win season. Leonard is posting career-high averages in points and assists while running a Spurs team that is without Tim Duncan for the first time in 19 years.
The stats may not be as gaudy as Harden’s, Westbrook’s, or LeBron James’, but Leonard is doing it on both ends in a year when the Spurs looked as if they may finally slow down. They haven’t, and Leonard has become a huge part of that.