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Jerry Sullivan: Leonard puts on a show worthy of an MVP

A few observations: One, the NBA postseason is fabulous. I know there's a singular, riveting drama to the Stanley Cup playoffs, but I'll take pro hoops any time. The stars don't get neutralized, or play only a third of the game; they're almost always the show.

Two, Jeff Van Gundy was right. They might as well hand the Warriors the trophy and be done with it. They came from 17 down on the road to beat Portland and are on the verge of a sweep, despite Kevin Durant sitting out the last two games with a left calf strain. He'll be back.

Three, Kawhi Leonard is the Most Valuable Player. You can have Russell Westbrook and James Harden and the trivial obsession with triple-doubles. Leonard might be the best player in the league. I know it's blasphemy to suggest it's anyone but LeBron James, but I'm wavering. James is getting older. His defense is slipping. And Leonard is that good.

Casual basketball fans don't see the Spurs often enough to realize how much Leonard has improved in the last few years. Remember, he was the MVP of the Finals three years ago, against James and the Heat, at age 22. He's gotten a lot better since then as a shooter, ballhandler and defender.

Leonard is nominally a forward, like LeBron. But at 6-7, he is now San Antonio's primary ballhandler in key stretches of games. He worked hard on his handle in the offseason to prepare for the extra responsibility. It shows. He's lethal off the dribble and his assists shot up this year. He guards multiple positions, critical in the postseason.

In case you missed it, Leonard put on an epic individual performance in Saturday night's 110-108 overtime loss at Memphis. Leonard scored the Spurs' final 16 points in regulation, then scored their last eight in OT before Marc Gasol won it with a last-second shot for the Grizzlies.

Leonard took over in the fourth quarter, personally outscoring Memphis, 11-0, at one point. It was the most amazing display I've seen in a playoff game since Isiah Thomas scored 16 points in the last 90 seconds of regulation (that's not a misprint) of the Pistons' series-deciding OT win over the Knicks in 1984.

Thomas scored 25 points in the third quarter on a sprained ankle in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers in 1988, but those 90 seconds against the Knicks are my all-time standard. Leonard gave it a run. If he had made the last-second shot in regulation, we might be talking all-time No. 1.

The Spurs trailed, 88-80, when Leonard took over with 3:54 to play. He made a three-pointer, then rebounded his own missed shot and made two free throws. He stole the ball -- his sixth steal of the game -- and drove for a conventional three-point play.

The free throw made him 40-for-40 from the line during the series. He had scored eight points in 57 seconds to tie the game. A few seconds later, Leonard nailed a three to give the Spurs a three-point lead.

The problem was, his teammates were contributing next to nothing. Manu Ginobili, three months from turning 40, hasn't scored in the series. Pau Gasol is a shell of his old self at 36. LaMarcus Aldridge played soft. Tony Parker had a good game, but he was worn down. In crunch time, Leonard was basically the offense.

He wasn't done, either. After the Spurs fell behind by one, he hit another three to make it 94-92. After Gasol tied it, he dribbled behind his back and hit a fallaway to make it 96-94. But Mike Conley, who gets overshadowed in a league of more celebrated point guards, scored to force overtime.

In OT, the Spurs trailed by four when Leonard hit a three, cutting the margin to a point with 22 seconds left. He sank a three from the left corner with 12 seconds left to tie it again. Then Gasol won it for Memphis.

Sorry for all the replay, but it was a performance to be savored, even in defeat. Leonard had scored a career-high 43 points (his previous high was 41 in an OT win in Cleveland this past January). He has five games with 30 points and at least five steals in a game this season. The rest of the league has combined for six such games.

This was the first time in more than 20 years that a player scored his team's last 15 points or more in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. It was Jordanesque. Leonard was 7-for-10 from behind the three-point arc. The rest of the Spurs were a combined 2-for-20.

Watching San Antonio, it's amazing to think they won 61 games this season. It's not the Spurs of Parker, Ginobili and Tim Duncan in their late primes. They aren't nearly as good as the team that won the NBA championship three years ago. Gregg Popovich is a great coach, but people still act as if Leonard has some wondrous supporting cast.

So I don't want to hear about how Westbrook deserves the MVP more because he carried his team. Leonard led his team to 15 more wins while missing 400 fewer shots. He's one of the top two or three defensive players in the league. As he showed Saturday, there's no more clutch scorer in the game.

"Honestly, I’m taking suggestions on how to guard Kawhi Leonard,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said. “I’ve tried everything, and the guy is just tough. Man, is he a superstar.”

After the Spurs won Game Two, Fizdale said Leonard didn't even seem to be breathing during the game. He said he was going to "check the rulebook to see if robots are allowed to play in the NBA. I think he bleeds antifreeze or something.”

Leonard is human. It's just that he rarely shows any emotion or utters anything memorable to the press. But he did get tired in that startling fourth quarter. He didn't seem to have his legs when he missed at the buzzer. He got off to a slow start in overtime.

Oh, and he's yet to record a triple-double in his career. So really, how could the guy be MVP?

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