The way that folks raved about LeBron James’ defense back in last year’s playoffs is the way that social media is going Gary-Payton-Glove-Crazy over Kawhi Leonard hustling on both ends of the floor down the stretch of an NBA season against a squad that could be a major playoff opponent.
When James hustled back and made that historical block on Andre Iguodala in Game 7 of last year's NBA Finals it was a tremendous defensive play, but folks acted as if no one in the history of the game ever made a great defensive play. That used to be par for the course in the NBA. This amazement with simple defensive plays, especially when executed by "offensive players" is a byproduct of this new era NBA.
Back in the days, players were lauded for their defensive prowess as much as their offensive abilities. That's how Dennis Rodman became a Hall of Famer. Rodman's don't exist in today's NBA.
Kawhi’s late-game sequence in the San Antonio Spurs’ 112-110 win over the Houston Rockets on Monday night is the talk of every barbershop conversation and sports news outlet today.
Leonard drained a clutch three with about 26 seconds left to give the Spurs a two-point lead. Then he got on his hustle horse and made a tremendous block on Harden on the other end, putting an emphatic stamp on a 39-point, six-rebound, five-assist performance. Leonard is the just the third player this season to hit a go-ahead shot and then block a final shot in the final 30 seconds of game (Yes they actually have a stat for that).
That one play has catapulted him into the MVP conversation and for the first time this season, “defense” is the word of choice for analysts, bloggers and talking heads alike. With Russell Westbrook and Harden dominating the early season MVP discussion, there are some who believe that Leonard has been the league's MVP in the second 3rd of the NBA's regular season marathon.
“I don’t know who goes (hard like that) on the other end…,” one Rockets player said. ”Not that many people.”
And therein lies the problem. It’s not Kawhi’s problem because he's now considered the best "two-way player” in the game. They've invented a new category just for him.
Let’s be honest. Very few players really play dogged defense, especially at the guard position. I’m not talking Steph Curry's steals or Westbrook’s occasional rebound bursts. Few players hustle 100 percent of the time on both ends of the floor like Kawhi. He's been locking dudes down, but this infatuation with threes and scoring sprees has devalued his greatness. He's a Finals MVP who still doesn't get regular season MVP billing because he seeks substance rather than stardom.
Now that defense has almost totally disappeared from the NBA game, dudes that D-up and three-up are like martians just landing. In reality, effort plays are often what separates the winners from the losers. You saw the difference between the Spurs and the Rockets and why the Spurs would defeat them in a playoff matchup.
Championships are won by making defensive stops down the stretch. That recipe hasn’t changed and Leonard’s ability to do it as well as anyone in the game not only makes him an MVP candidate, but makes the Spurs a championship contender.
Leonard’s hustle and intensity, which people are lauding as great defense, puts the focus back on the all-around players and the value of defense to championship clubs, rather than this obsession we have with how many empty points someone can score.
With cats like Kawhi refusing to become one-dimensional ballers, maybe playing defense will become a part of the NBA regular season again some day.