SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Kawhi Leonard could have been devastated by losing last season’s NBA Finals.
Instead, he vowed to get better.
Just think — the San Antonio Spurs’ youngest star is only getting started. He’s a champion now, with the Spurs beating the Miami Heat 104-87 on Sunday night in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, finishing off a 4-1 triumph. And after watching the Heat celebrate last season, Leonard was the pick as MVP of the series, accepting his award from 11-time champion Bill Russell.
“Everybody is just living in the moment right now,” Leonard said. “Really don’t know what’s going on.”
He’ll figure it out quick. After all, the Spurs know titles — this one being their fifth since 1999.
When Commissioner Adam Silver announced Leonard as the MVP, he was mobbed by his teammates and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich roared with laughter, knowing Leonard would have to do what he hates most — talk about himself.
“Right now, it’s just surreal to me,” Leonard said. “I have a great group of guys behind me.”
Leonard had 22 points and 10 rebounds, his third straight big game in the series. He fouled out in the fourth quarter, which was barely noticed after the job he did helping keep LeBron James in some sort of check over the final three quarters.
When it was over — actually, a few seconds before it was over — James led a group of Heat players down to the Spurs’ bench for the first round of congratulatory hugs.
The first one he gave, and rightly so, was to Leonard. It was James taking the trophy from Russell in each of the last two seasons, after Miami’s titles.
This time, the night belonged to Leonard, a 22-year-old who the Spurs have long thought was the heir apparent to the Big 3 of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
“The first two games, he didn’t play so well,” James said about Leonard. “I thought he attacked more in the last three games, shot the ball extremely well.”
Added Heat guard Dwyane Wade: “It’s like he just played free. … He’s the future of this team.”
The Big 3 in San Antonio is still championship-good.
But their key guy now might be Leonard, who just took over this series.
“He’s a great learner and he’s super competitive, has a drive to be the best that’s really uncommon in our league,” Popovich said. “He walks the walk. I mean, he’s there early, he’s there late. He wants more. He wants me and the coaches to push him. So I just talked to him about not being in that defer sort of stage. The hell with Tony, the hell with Timmy, the hell with Manu, you play the game. You are the man.”
In this series, he absolutely was. Leonard averaged 17.8 points on 61 percent shooting. And he became the youngest Finals MVP since Duncan won it for the Spurs in 1999.