LeBron is struggling for a reason: Kawhi Leonard's defense


SAN ANTONIO -- The very first night upon arriving here in Texas after the 2011 draft, all Kawhi Leonard wanted to do was go to the gym.

He arrived at the Spurs' practice facility hoping there'd be a security guard or someone -- anyone -- to let him in. His agent, Brian Elfus, reminded Leonard that he'd had his fingerprints taken earlier in the day as part of a rushed security protocol in the days before the lockout began. Leonard put his finger in the scanner, the doors to the gym opened, and he proceeded to put up shots for two hours.

The Spurs' shooting coach, Chip Engelland, only had Leonard for three days before the lockout began, but it was enough time to teach the 19-year-old from San Diego State to lose the behind-the-head, slingshot motion on his jump shot. But Leonard's impact on these NBA Finals has nothing to do with all those hours spent working on putting the ball in the basket. It has been all about stopping the best player in the world from doing the same.

After three games of the Finals, it has become apparent that LeBron James' ineffectiveness has not been on purpose. His lack of scoring hasn't been the result of some conscious effort to be passive, unselfish or whatever other explanation du jour there might be. A lot of it has to do with the defense of Kawhi Leonard, who does not like the limelight to shine on him but who'd better get used to it.

After the Spurs blew out the Heat 113-77 on Tuesday night to take a 2-1 lead in the Finals, Leonard's friends and family gathered in the tunnel leading to the San Antonio locker room to make plans for food and drinks at the home where Leonard lives with his mother. That's right, 21-year-old Kawhi Leonard -- the LeBron Stopper -- lives with his mother and has since the Spurs acquired him in a draft day trade from the Pacers two years ago.

"He's my youngest; he's my baby boy," said his mom, Kim Robertson. "He was young, and I just wanted to make sure he's OK."

I'd say OK would be an understatement.

For the third straight game, James failed to score 20 points against the Spurs -- his first such postseason stretch since the doomed 2011 Finals against the Mavericks. With Leonard harassing him on the perimeter and the Spurs' exquisite team defense clogging the lanes, James was 7 for 21 for 15 points on Tuesday night. He failed to attempt a free throw for the first time since 2009.

James is averaging 16.3 points and shooting 39 percent (21 for 54) from the field in the series. The ebb and flow of James' assertiveness has always been a point for debate. Is he attacking enough? Deferring too much? Is he too passive? In Game 1, his 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists were viewed as not aggressive enough in a four-point loss. With similar numbers in Game 2 -- a 19-point Miami win -- James was lauded for finding ways to dominate besides scoring.

Finally, under the Spurs' onslaught in Game 3, James relented.

"I've got to do more; it's just that simple," James said. "I've got to be able to put the ball in the basket."

For three consecutive games in the Finals -- two of them San Antonio wins -- the Spurs have stopped LeBron from being LeBron. And the unrelenting focal point of that strategy -- the most important ingredient in the Spurs' recipe for beating the Heat -- has been Kawhi Leonard.

Some of James' most ordinary playoff performances have come in the Finals against the Spurs. Six years ago, it was Bruce Bowen & Co. stifling him into some dreadful shooting performances; James was 4 for 16, 9 for 21, 9 for 23 and 10 for 30 in San Antonio's sweep of James' Cavaliers.

The cast of characters has changed, but the result has not. The Spurs have found the antidote to LeBron.

"The Spurs continue to develop players, no matter what kind of team we've put together," Tim Duncan said. "They always do a great job of that, and it's showing."

It showed on Tuesday night with a 3-point barrage from Danny Green (27 points, 7 for 9 from 3-point range) and Gary Neal (24 points, 6 for 10). San Antonio's 16 3-pointers were a Finals record. Trying to take out LeBron in the Finals for the second time, it was the supporting players who've since been added to the Spurs' Big Three that have made the difference.

How do they find them? Neal bounced from Turkey to Spain to Italy before landing on Gregg Popovich's bench. Green was cut by the Cavaliers, where he was briefly James' teammate, and then by the Spurs. He toiled in the D-League and in Slovenia before finding his way back to San Antonio. Leonard took a more traditional path, but even that one wasn't assured.

The Spurs hadn't invited Leonard to any pre-draft workouts in 2011, so when Elfus' phone rang at 3 o'clock on draft day and GM R.C. Buford was on the other end, the San Diego-based agent didn't know what to think.

As Leonard was walking across the stage after being selected by the Indiana Pacers with the 15th pick, Buford called Elfus again and said, "He's ours." San Antonio had acquired Leonard for point guard George Hill.

He's genuinely perplexed by questions about his defense on James. To Leonard, it isn't as complicated or psychological as everyone wants to make it: keep James in front of him, use his length and compete. It's boring, but true. In that way, he's the perfect Spur.

"Some guys are affected by the lights, and some guys aren't," Popovich said. "We haven't done anything to make him the way he is; he was already like that."

His proud mom and housemate doesn't want any of the credit, either. All of it, she says, should go to Leonard, who overcame the cruel shooting death of his father, Mark Leonard, who was killed in Compton, Calif., in 2008 while Leonard was still in high school. Leonard, who played for Martin Luther King in Riverside, had a game the next day against Compton-Dominguez.

"He said, 'Mom, I want to go and I want to play,'" Robertson said. "And so we went, he played, he did a great job. We lost, and he broke down. I think it was just a driving force to make him want to get better and get stronger."

The kind of force it takes to deconstruct the best player on the planet brings attention that Leonard would rather do without.

"He's quiet, he's humble, he wants to be a great player and he works before and after practice every day," Popovich said. "So what we're seeing out there is just part of his personality. He just comes to play."

Just like that first day in San Antonio, when Leonard just wanted the gym doors to open and let him in. The perfect Spur. An unlikely antidote to LeBron James.

Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com

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