Kawhi Leonard just might swoop in and steal the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
The soft-spoken San Antonio forward has played in only 59 games this season because of injuries, but he is healthy at the right time to help the Spurs surge up the Western Conference ladder as the playoffs approach.
The Spurs have won seven straight and Leonard is leading the way with some truly dominant defense. He had seven steals in a victory over the Golden State Warriors on Sunday night and has at least four swipes in seven of the last 15 games.
“He is really playing confidently, but he hasn’t forgotten to predicate his game on the defense and on the boards,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “It kind of fuels him offensively. Our guys know how to give him his room. We are learning it better and better.”
Leonard missed 17 of 19 games from Dec. 10 to Jan. 14, and the defending champions struggled to find the groove that made them so devastating in last year’s run to their fifth title. Leonard has given them their mojo back, giving them another staunch perimeter defender alongside Danny Green and pushed himself into the postseason award conversation.
Golden State’s Draymond Green had been considered the front-runner for the award for much of the season, with the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan and the Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol among the others getting consideration.
But the man known as “The Claw” for his huge hands — the one who won MVP honors in the NBA Finals last year — is staking a pretty strong claim as the season draws to a close.
“I was just trying to come out here and make it carry over to the playoffs,” said Leonard, who will be a restricted free agent this summer. “I’m trying to compete every game and help my team win.”
Here are some things to watch this week:
GEORGE’S RETURN: Paul George scored 13 points in 14 minutes during an emotional return to the court on Sunday for the Indiana Pacers. It was George’s first game since a gruesome broken leg in a Team USA scrimmage last summer. He’ll play again on Wednesday in Madison Square Garden.
HOWARD RISES: Dwight Howard has been limited to 37 games this season because of injuries. On Sunday against Oklahoma City, he looked like his old self with 22 points and eight rebounds, just in time for the playoffs.
SCORING RACE: Russell Westbrook and James Harden are neck-and-neck for the scoring title down the stretch. Both entered their game on Sunday averaging 27.7 points per game. Harden scored 41 and Westbrook scored 40 in that game. Buckle up.
TEXAS TWO-STEP: The Spurs (51-26) are right on the heels of the second-seeded Rockets (53-24) in the West. The teams play twice this week. First in San Antonio on Wednesday and then in Houston on Friday.
TANKING TIMBERWOLVES: Minnesota (16-60) has lost six straight and shut down Ricky Rubio for the rest of the season with an injured ankle. They have a tough road trip this week with four games in five nights out west and could catch the Knicks (15-62) for the NBA’s worst record.
STAT LINE OF THE WEEK: Harden: 51 points, eight rebounds, six assists vs. Kings on Wednesday. While Howard has slowly worked his way back into the lineup, Harden has made his case for league MVP with a stellar finish. He hit 8 of 9 3-pointers against Sacramento and needed just 25 field goal attempts to hit 50 for the second time in eight games.
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