MIAMI (AP) — Manu Ginobili said before the NBA Finals started that Kawhi Leonard was San Antonio’s only hope of containing LeBron James.
The awesome responsibility of defending the world’s best player didn’t faze the second-year swingman in the least.
Leonard was the point man in San Antonio’s defense of James, who scored a playoff-low 18 points in the Spurs’ 92-88 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 1 on Thursday night.
Leonard hounded James all night long, chasing him around the perimeter and forcing him to look to pass first. Leonard also had 10 points and 10 rebounds in a stellar finals debut.
“Nowadays keeping LeBron under 20 is just, like, something that doesn’t happen very often,” Ginobili said. “And Kawhi did a great job. Of course, it’s a matter of having a (big man) behind him, helping and rotating. But that was as good as it gets for one-on-one coverage. Great job by him.”
With Tim Duncan in the paint behind him and help on the wings from Danny Green and any other Spurs player in the vicinity of James, the 6-foot-7 Leonard made it as tough as could possibly be expected for the four-time MVP.
James also had 18 rebounds and 10 assists for his 10th career playoff triple-double, another incredibly well-rounded performance. But he made only 7 of 16 shots and was prevented from taking over late in another close game as he has so often before.
“When I got the ball they kind of shrunk the floor and set a guy at the elbow and dared me to pass the ball,” James said. “I know my guys will be there to knock those shots down the next game.”
The Heat shot 27.8 percent in the fourth quarter, including 0 for 5 from 3-point range, many of those on kick-outs from James when he found himself surrounded by Leonard and friends.
“I guess it’s a lot of pressure but it’s just a basketball game,” Leonard said. “I’ve been defending the best players throughout the whole year.”
Leonard’s refusal to bow to the pressures being foisted on him makes him a perfect fit for these Spurs, who take pride in never getting rattled no matter the situation. After jumping out to a 9-2 lead, the Spurs trailed for most of the game, but Leonard and the rest of them never lost their composure and just kept chipping away.
James came out aggressively against Leonard, getting him to pick up two quick fouls. But Leonard never backed down, and didn’t pick up a foul for the rest of the game.
“He made him work,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “Nobody is going to stop LeBron James for all the reasons that we all know, but to try to make him work and maybe deny a catch here and there is important. Kawhi did the best job he could.”
It was a crucial performance for the Spurs, who don’t have several big, strong perimeter defenders to throw at James that the Indiana Pacers did in the Eastern Conference finals. Green is the only other wing player who gets regular minutes who is at least 6-foot-6. That means the 6-7 Leonard, with a wingspan that allows him to play even bigger, will get the bulk of the time on James.
“Basically he’s our only player that can really matchup in some sort of way with (James),” Ginobili said. “There are not many in the league that can match up with him. But with our team, he’s going to be important.”
Popovich was initially hesitant to bring Leonard into the fold on a draft-night trade with Indiana in 2011 because he didn’t want to part with George Hill, who was sent to the Pacers. But Leonard was brought in for the express purpose of defending big forwards like James, and it paid of big time in Game 1.
“I was just trying to stay close to him, contest all his shots,” Leonard said, “just not trying to get him easy baskets or easy looks.”