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 Kawhi Leonard has career-defining performance in Spurs' Game 3 rout of Clippers

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PostSubject: Kawhi Leonard has career-defining performance in Spurs' Game 3 rout of Clippers   4/26/2015, 2:18 am

SAN ANTONIO — It was our fault, Clippers fans.

The big bad media voted Kawhi Leonard as the Defensive Player of the Year, which not only angered those of you who believed DeAndre Jordan was more deserving (from Doc Rivers on down), but apparently inspired the San Antonio Spurs' young star to show the basketball world that he's no one-dimensional player.

That's the only possible explanation for his 32-point offensive clinic that carried the Spurs to a 100-73 win in Game 3 of their first-round series. Lo siento Lob City. With Game 4 set for Sunday in San Antonio, this unintended consequence has your embattled team down 2-1.

Leonard must have been insulted that the media pigeon-holed him in such a way, having the audacity to give him this kind of narrow-minded honor. Rest assured, Kawhi, there will be awards of every shape and size coming your way if this latest outing was a preview of things to come.

By the time Leonard's best individual night in four seasons as a pro was nearing an end, the Spurs' lead having grown to 30 after Lester Hudson became his latest victim and the chants of "MVP" raining down on the raucous AT&T Center, it was as if Leonard had been superimposed on the old McDonald's commercials featuring Michael Jordan and Larry Bird making every shot imaginable. Leonard hit 13-of-18 in all, takes and makes of all different kinds during a dominating performance that surprised even those who know him best.

In Fort Myers, Fla., San Diego State coach Steve Fisher took a break from his night out with friends to marvel like the rest of us at the two-way talent on display. But as best evidenced by the trophy he won before tip-off, the defense doesn't surprise anyone anymore. This kind of offense — the isolations, the post-ups, the soaring dunks on the break — is enough to re-spark the conversation about where Leonard's potential truly ends.

Fisher, who had Leonard for two seasons with the Aztecs and deserves credit for predicting this kind of growth when his star player went pro, was floored.

"What a phenomenal game," Fisher told USA TODAY Sports by phone. "At both ends of the floor just incredible. If you're around him like we were for two years, you saw the work ethic that he had and the competitiveness to where you knew that he was going to continue to get better. But to see him play like this, I just smile and shake my head. It's absolutely incredible. But he's got that inner confidence. He's good, and he knows he's good.

"I've never had a guy work the way he does when nobody is watching. He just wants to get in the gym, doesn't want anybody to know. But he wants to be in that gym 24-7. And he's in there to work on his game. He doesn't just put in time. He's working."

Fisher, who said he always clears his schedule when Leonard's games are on, predicted this would happen long before there was reason to believe.

During the Aztecs' March Madness run in 2011, when Leonard was the defense-first forward who could score but whose shot was suspect (he shot 20.5% from three-point range as a freshman, 29.1% as a sophomore), Fisher said of Leonard: "He truly is someone that has a fierce desire to get better. He's going to be one who will not come in and be satisfied to sign a contract, then get another contract, be messing with the money. He's going to want to be very good."

The money will take care of itself. Leonard is a restricted free agent this summer, and the Spurs — who took a calculated risk by not extending him last summer — will have to pay him the max-contract he so deserves if they plan on seeing these kinds of shows in San Antonio for the next four or five years.

But the game, this fascinating evolution in which he goes from high-level role player to borderline franchise centerpiece to the kind of superstar we saw on Friday night, is bounding forward because of the lab work that Leonard has always been willing to do. It has been there at every turn, and it was there again last summer.

Before the Spurs' title defense was officially underway, the Finals MVP made his way to UC San Diego's RIMAC Arena as he always does that time of year and worked on his offensive repertoire with his college teammate and current Spurs video intern Jeremy Castleberry. The two of them were the constants in those sessions, with Spurs assistant coach Chip Engelland — "The Shot Doctor" as they call him — and fellow assistant coach Chad Forcier frequent workout partners as well.

"I've been working on the shots I've been shooting, and just having game experience and being able to get those shots that I work on in (the) game, that's basically it," said Leonard, who led the Spurs in scoring this season (16.5 points per game) but was the 34th-ranked scorer in the NBA. "I just wanted to shoot, to try to get my opportunities to get open shots and just being more aggressive.

"It's definitely fun when you're able to translate your off-the-floor (work), like when you're at practice and you're able to translate it to the game and you know that your hard work paid off with what you've been working on."

Unless, of course, you're the one trying to stop him.

After Leonard accepted the Defensive Player of the Year trophy before the tip-off, smiling ever so briefly for the league-mandated photo-op, he proceeded to spend the first quarter looking like the best offensive player in all the NBA. A driving layup at the start, then a midrange look from the left side, followed by two three-pointers from the top that played a big part in the Spurs' 25-16 lead entering the second quarter.

But his alley-oop over Blake Griffin that brought the Spurs' house down late in the second quarter was the kind of eye-opener that makes you wonder how good of a scorer he can be. Spurs guard Danny Green looked ready to fire away from the left wing when he pulled up on the break, but spotted Leonard racing down the right side and lobbed it his way in a Rick Barry free throw kind of way.

Leonard soared high above as the league's best high-flyer watched from below, grabbed the ball Dr. J style with his gargantuan right hand and finished with all the flair of a LeBron James or Kevin Durant type. He had 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting at the half, all of it perfectly timed considering San Antonio had shot 12-of-31 otherwise while leading 46-38. He put Clippers small forward Matt Barnes in a blender on more than one occasion — crossing him up, baiting him to bite on pump-fakes and finishing almost every time.

Beyond the fact that his 32 points were a career high, the true meaning of the evening was in the context. The Spurs' Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili combined for a playoff-low 12 points, yet San Antonio ran away with the win. The black and gray torch with the burning flame, in other words, is being passed like never before.

"He put on a show tonight," Duncan said. "(And) he did it the right way. He stayed within our offense. He got some shots going early on, and then I think he just kind of got comfortable and kind of got on a roll, and then you see his level of difficulty kind of going up, shooting over double teams, fading away, making plays.

"From there, he was off to the races. He did it the right way. He continues to impress me every time he's out there. And if he can put on a show like that in a situation like this, it's obviously great for us, but it's impressive to watch."

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