Kawhi Leonard elevated his game this season, making himself a legitimate MVP candidate. He somehow improved on his numbers during the Spurs' first-round playoff series against the Grizzlies, averaging more points, rebounds, assists and steals among other stats.
After the Spurs won the series 4-2 Thursday night, Leonard's coach Gregg Popovich made a bold declaration: "Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now. He's the best two-way player, and does it all with such class, it's impressive."
Popovich usually avoids making statements like this, instead opting to praise the team as a whole. But even he has been amazed by what Leonard did against Memphis. After being primarily a strong defender when he entered the league, Leonard has grown into an offensive weapon.
He averaged 31.2 points against the Grizzlies in six games, all while maintaining his defensive efficiency. He averaged 2.0 steals and 6.0 rebounds, playing 37.5 minutes per game. Not many players can play such high-energy offense and defense throughout the majority of the game.
As for Leonard, he remained humble when told about Popovich's statement.
“Well, I didn’t really hear him say that, but as I’ve said before, I’m not trying to be the best player, I’m trying to be the best team," he said. "I don’t even think about it.”
Grizzlies coach David Fizdale, who had to come up with ways to stop Leonard, had nothing but praise for him Thursday night.
"The thing that just makes him different is I just don't know many possessions that he takes off because he plays both ends of the floor so well," Fizdale said. "And his conditioning is like nothing I've ever seen. I mean, the guy, he just keeps coming and keeps coming and keeps coming and he finds a way to make a play, a winning play, whether it's a steal, a block, a rebound, a drive, pass. He made plays tonight off the dribble. You know, he makes a good argument. I would say that about my own guy, too."
Leonard will have to keep up his strong performances as he and the Spurs will play fellow MVP candidate James Harden and the Rockets next.