Kawhi Leonard has played through far more trying circumstances than two bad games in the NBA Finals.
When he was a junior at Riverside King High, his father was fatally shot at a Compton car wash on a Friday night. Leonard played Saturday, fighting back his emotions during a pregame moment of silence and scoring 15 points before finally breaking down afterward in his mother’s arms in a tunnel inside Pauley Pavilion.
Basketball was his refuge from a chaotic time.
“He played like nothing ever happened the rest of the year,” recalled his high school coach, Tim Sweeney Jr.
Shaking things off comes naturally for Leonard, the San Antonio Spurs forward who acted as if his previous Finals struggles never occurred during a breakthrough in Game 3 on Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Leonard scored a career-high 29 points, flustered Miami Heat superstar LeBron James into seven turnovers and twice blocked his shots during San Antonio’s 111-92 victory. The Spurs will take a 2-1 series lead into Game 4 in Miami on Thursday.
Leonard’s performance earned a Twitter shout-out from Lakers legend Magic Johnson, who proclaimed: “Mark my words: Kawhi Leonard will one day be a star in the NBA!”
What it couldn’t do was prompt the painfully shy Leonard to drag himself to the podium, the third-year player telling team officials he didn’t want to address the assembled media horde.
“I already had done like four different interviews with different [television] stations,” Leonard explained Wednesday, “so I didn’t want to get asked the same questions again for a fifth time.”
Steve Fisher chuckled when relayed Leonard’s quote. The San Diego State coach came to understand Leonard’s priorities during his two years as an Aztec.
“He likes to keep to himself, come in, perform, get out and not make a whole big deal out of it,” Fisher said in a telephone interview.
Leonard’s preference is to spend as much time in the gym as possible. If he’s alone, all the better.
One day he found a way into San Diego State’s Viejas Arena before arena personnel arrived, hoisting shots with a makeshift lamp illuminating the court. Nervous arena workers observed the scene and alerted campus police at 7:30 a.m.
“We’ve never had a guy that’s put more gym time in when nobody’s watching, when it’s not required,” said Fisher, who has coached NBA All-Stars Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, among others. “Nobody.”
Leonard has rented a house in La Jolla each summer since his rookie season, working out with former teammates, Spurs staffers and San Diego State’s strength coach. There are certain house rules that must be obeyed.
“Kawhi goes to bed and if you’re in the house, it’s quiet or you’re out,” said Sweeney."He’s getting up in the morning and working out five, six, seven hours a day. That’s just the way he is.”
Leonard had been one of the Spurs’ most consistent performers before the Finals, when early foul trouble and inconsistency limited him to single-digit scoring performances in each of the first two games.
Then came Game 3, when he became the youngest player to score at least 25 points while shooting at least 75% in the Finals. He made 10 of 13 shots (76.9%).
“Kawhi had a really impactful game,” James said. “He’s a really good talent, and he’s a big piece of their puzzle.”
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich has called Leonard, who turns 23 later this month, the future of his team, though it might be more accurate to acknowledge him as the present. He’s averaging 15.7 points on 59.3% shooting in the Finals, even taking into account his first two games in which his value was questioned.
“Everybody was saying, ‘Boy, it didn’t look like he could be the face of the franchise, it didn’t look like he’s as good as they thought,’” Fisher said. “Then he stepped up and played the way he did.”
It wasn’t much of a surprise, really, for someone who always follows through. Leonard has a tattoo tribute to his father on his right arm, a tombstone with an “R.I.P. Dad” inscription with angel’s wings sprouting from each side.
“He had a lot of influence on me just working hard at my craft,” Leonard said of his father, Mark Leonard. “He just wanted me to enjoy the game and have fun, but he was more of a football guy and I stuck with basketball.”
Good thing, since it has worked out even in the worst of times.