SAN ANTONIO – Hours away from drawing the toughest defensive assignment of his two-year career with the San Antonio Spurs, Kawhi Leonard wasn’t feverishly taking mental notes of how to guard LeBron James.
The second-year pro was simply relaxing at home Monday night, watching Miami rout the Indiana Pacers, 99-76, to set up a showdown with San Antonio in the NBA Finals. Seeing how Paul George and Lance Stephenson defended James wasn’t as important to Leonard as the outcome.
“I was just laying [down], seeing who we were going to play,” he said.
Leonard means no disrespect. He is just happy to know who the Spurs will play after a week’s wait after their sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference finals. The 6-foot-7 Leonard will draw the primary defensive assignment against James, the reigning NBA Finals MVP and two-time league MVP who is averaging 26.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 6.4 assists in the playoffs.
James is also shooting 51 percent overall and 39 percent on 3-pointers.
“It’s just a great challenge for me to try to help my team win by playing good defense on him,” Leonard said. “I just accept the challenge and am ready to play.”
Facing a player on a hot streak isn’t new to San Antonio this postseason after showdowns with Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Memphis’ Zach Randolph.
After averaging 24 points and 10 assists in an upset of the Denver Nuggets, sweet-shooting Curry was held to 18.2 points and six assists against the Spurs – excluding a 44-point, 11-assist effort in a Game 1 loss by the Warriors.
Randolph averaged 18.4 points and 10.8 rebounds while bullying the Oklahoma City Thunder in the paint, but was limited to 11 points and 12 rebounds against the Spurs. His production included a two-point, seven-rebound effort in a Game 1 loss to San Antonio.
In some respect, the Spurs are facing a hybrid of Curry and Randolph in the 6-foot-8, 250-pound James.
“He’s great on offense and defense,” said Leonard, who has a 7-3 wingspan. “He can pass, he can shoot the ball, gets offensive rebounds and defensive rebounds and he can guard the best player on the other team.”
While Leonard will be James’ primary defender, the Spurs will attempt to move him toward defensive help in the hope he gives up the ball. It’s a strategy that helped San Antonio limit opponents to 44.2 percent shooting, which was eighth in the league.
But James isn’t the only player the Spurs know they will need a group mentality to defend, starting with All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
“They’ve got more than just the big fella,” San Antonio guard Danny Green said. “They are a great team. There is a reason they won last year, and they also added some pieces this year. On paper they have a really good team. Obviously they haven’t been playing as well as of late, but they have so many shooters surrounding the Big 3 they are a mismatch problem for any team.”
There was speculation that Miami was vulnerable, considering Wade was battling a knee injury and Bosh was struggling offensively, leading to a Game 7 against a young Pacers team.
Spurs forward Tim Duncan was stunned by that assertion.
“I don’t know how to answer that question,” Duncan said. “I will know that when they stand in front of us if that be the case, but as of right now they are still the defending champs and the best team in the regular season.”
Wade dismissed a lot of those notions with 21 points and nine rebounds Monday night to lead Miami to its third consecutive NBA Finals.
“He’s an All-Star,” Green said of Wade. “I don’t think it surprises anyone what he’s capable of doing. He obviously hasn’t been shooting as well, and neither has Chris bosh, but we know what they’re capable of. Any given night they can come out and give a game like that.
“Good players do big things on big stages. We expected them to do that last night and we expect them to come out in the Finals and be playing their best basketball.”
The Heat swept the regular season series with the Spurs, but both games don’t mean much. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich sent Duncan, Green, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili home rather than have them travel to Miami to play the second night of a back-to-back on Nov. 29. The Spurs were fined $250,000 by the NBA for the decision.
Miami returned the favor by sitting James and Wade on March 21 in San Antonio.
Still, the Spurs could have a leg up on the advance scouting against James and the Heat since the Pacers have a similar roster and defensive strategy.
“It’s basketball, so it’s not grossly different,” Popovich said. “There are some things that we might emphasize or not emphasize as much as Indiana did just because we’re a different team. Everybody is going to do things a little differently, but a lot of the things that we all do are similar.”