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Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Kawhi Leonard's rise led to Heat's fall

By Scoop Jackson
ESPN.com

So this is what revenge looks like. This is what laser-focus, show and prove, "You all didn't win the Finals last year, we lost it" looks like. This is what one team totally separating itself from the two-time defending champs looks like. This is what experiencing something authentically special in sports feels like.

And inside this retaliatory Spurs performance -- which has experts, analysts, aficionados and pundits looking at where this team ranks in historical context -- is the emergence of Kawhi Leonard, a player who could easily, right now, be singled out as the future of basketball.

Going into these playoffs, I asked two questions: Is Kawhi Leonard man enough to take Manu Ginobili's role with the Spurs, and will the weight of "carrying" the Heat catch up to LeBron James? I think over the course of the Finals, the answer to both -- if not more -- has become evident.

It's beautiful to watch someone find himself. Kawhi going from role player to winning Finals MVP is only a part of that beauty. Over the course of the last three games in the Finals, we watched the Spurs elevate the standard of excellence to a level the millennial generation has yet to see in professional basketball. As Tim Duncan said on the court, as the towel around his neck soaked up his championship sweat, about the win: "It makes last year OK."

Keith Olbermann used the word "subsumed" in describing what the Spurs have done to the Heat. I've been recorded using the words "ass whopping." All the same, the shift that has occurred in these Finals will more than likely be described years later as one that had more impact on the legacy of the LeBron era in Miami than the two championships the Heat won.

That doesn't detract from the fact that this Spurs team is the best of all the Spurs teams that have ever won a championship. Largest point differential in NBA Finals history. Highest offensive efficiency in an NBA Finals played since 1979-80. Highest effective field goal percentage -- 60.4 percent -- in an NBA Finals since the 3-point line was implemented. And that 60.4 percent combined with an overall offensive rating of 118.5 are the highest of any team that has won an NBA Finals since Bird and Magic came into the league. Add to that the fact that, of the other four championships they've won over the past 15 years, none has been against a two-time defending championship team that had the best player alive as an obstacle.

LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard's defense made it difficult for LeBron James to shine in the Finals.

And this is where Leonard comes into the conversation in regard to his possible place in contemporary basketball as the one player who has the ability and opportunity to be -- for this generation -- exactly what Tim Duncan has been for the past two decades.

A player wearing a Spurs uniform who silently redefines the understanding of what a dynasty is. A player who is not concerned about being known, not trying to be seen, heard, exploited or exposed, pimped or controlled. One who is not trying to claim the moniker of "LeBron Stopper," make the cover of Sports Illustrated or be given accolades from his opponent, such as when Michael Jordan said no one guarded him better than Joe Dumars. One who is not trying to be the new generation's Dr. J or Scottie Pippen -- even though there are eerie flashes of both in Leonard's game. (Dr. J and Pippen are often the first names out of old-school hoop connoisseur mouths when Leonard is pushing himself past his own limits.)

Leonard is the player who seems to tip the scale in making this Spurs squad the best in the organization's history. Even with past players such as Mario Elie, Sean Elliott, Robert Horry and Stephen Jackson, the Spurs have never had a player like Leonard on any of their championship rosters. Leonard turned the Big Three into a Fab Four. It makes them the one Spurs squad that could beat the other championship squads in franchise history if they were to mythically play each other in the Finals. Kawhi completes them.

Much will be made about LeBron and how he -- despite playing far better than anyone else in a Heat uniform -- didn't do enough to stop his team from getting embarrassed and exposed. Still, something should be said about the symbolism of his figuratively passing the trophy to the Spurs and passing the torch to Kawhi. Because, as James led his defeated unit to the Spurs' end of the court while time was still ticking off the clock, the first person he wrapped his arms around to congratulate was Leonard.

James knew what we all know now.

ESPN/ABC promised in their promotion of these Finals: A Champion Will Rise.

As did a star.