SAN ANTONIO — Kawhi Leonard is so advanced defensively for a rookie that he’s guarding a three-time scoring champion in the playoffs.
He has also vastly improved his outside shot, lowering his release point and getting more arc on the ball.
“Now I just wish he knew our plays,” San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich quipped.
Oh, right. That.
Leonard shouldn’t take it personally. Getting zinged by Popovich means you’re one of the guys.
And Leonard seems to be fitting in just fine with a no-frills franchise that does little besides win, win, win.
“I’m just living in the moment,” he said after Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. “I have a great group of guys behind me and Coach has been great by just helping me move forward and get better.”
Leonard’s development continued on a national stage during San Antonio’s 120-111 victory Tuesday, which gave the Spurs a 20th consecutive triumph dating to the regular season and a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Game 3 is Thursday in Oklahoma City.
The 6-foot-7 Spurs forward scored a playoff-high 18 points Tuesday on seven-for-12 shooting, including three of six from beyond the three-point arc, to go with 10 rebounds and two blocks. It was Leonard’s fifth career double-double and first in the playoffs.
The Thunder certainly couldn’t tell if Leonard was having any issues with his knowledge of the playbook.
There was a nifty move for a dunk along the baseline after taking a pass from Tony Parker. There were a couple of open three-pointers in the corner.
The exclamation point came with 17 seconds left in the game. Leonard went in for a dunk in which he was hacked by James Harden, resulting in a three-point play after Leonard converted the free throw.
It was nothing new, really.
“Kawhi has been playing great all season long for us,” Parker said. “Every round he’s been playing great, guarding the best guy on the other team. I’m not very surprised.”
Leonard averaged 7.9 points and 5.1 rebounds during the regular season, becoming a first team all-rookie selection.
The 20-year-old has had his first-year hiccups as well. Popovich primarily went with veteran forward Stephen Jackson instead of Leonard in the fourth quarter of Game 1 after Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant scored eight points in the third quarter.
But Leonard, whose lengthy limbs give him the wingspan of a 7-footer, was back on the court late in Game 2, playing 91/2 minutes of harassing defense in the fourth quarter. Durant scored only four of his 31 points in the game’s final 12 minutes.
“Kawhi Leonard is a really quick learner,” Popovich said. “He’s got a great work ethic that’s really impressive, and he has no fear. I’ve learned as the year went along to believe in him more and more.”
Leonard has proved worthy of a coach’s trust since high school. He led King High in Riverside to a Southern Section championship and helped take San Diego State to a regional semifinal in the 2011 NCAA tournament before he was taken with the No. 15 overall pick in the draft last June.
“When the Spurs selected me I was happy,” said Leonard, who was born in Los Angeles. “I just wanted to be on a team that was winning and that I could learn from some older guys how to win in the NBA. So the situation just worked out perfect for me.”
He said veteran teammates Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan have taught him the importance of “basic stuff” such as practicing hard, staying focused and listening to Popovich.
Now his team is only two victories from advancing to basketball’s biggest stage. Leonard remains as unfussy as ever, speaking in a subdued monotone as if he’s discussing something as ordinary as a breakfast of oatmeal.
“I’m just out there going to play hard and having fun, really, just living in the moment,” he said. “I’ll probably think about it a lot after the season.”