SAN ANTONIO-- The MVP debate is over, regardless of who you believe should win. The votes are cast, the games that counted towards it are done. The NBA's premier award for the regular season should not factor into our analysis for this second-round matchup between the Rockets and Spurs. It's moot.
But in San Antonio's 121-96 victory over Houston to even the series 1-1 on Wednesday, one thing became clear: Kawhi Leonard is the most valuable player in this matchup.
That's not built upon the quality of play or the outcome of this particular game, especially when the Rockets got the split you need at the AT&T Center to start this week. However, what Game 2 showed us is where Leonard's peerless defense, combined with his now otherworldly offense, gives his team an enormous edge when his teammates are able to hit shots and execute.
The question going into Game 2 was about Leonard and how the Spurs would adapt with him. In Game 1, the Rockets used Kawhisolation to neutralize the impact Leonard could have on the Rockets' offense, effectively taking him out of the equation by stretching his man as wide as possible (because Kawhi wasn't guarding Jame Harden). That, combined with a relentless Rockets attack, ran the Spurs out of the building in Game 1. The gambit in Game 2 was whether to put Leonard on Harden a greater amount, risking both fatigue, which could impact his offense, and foul trouble.
They took the risk and matched up their star on Houston;s star and James Harden finished Game 2 with 13 points on 3-of-17 shooting, and while he did have 10 assists, he was a minus-13.
Leonard did not pick up a single personal foul.
Oh, and he led the Spurs with 34 points on 13-of-16 shooting, seven rebounds, eight assists, three steals and a block. The Spurs were a game-high plus-24 with Leonard on the court in Game 2.
It was flawless. A seamless, nearly perfect, overwhelming performance from the only player in the league who could do that, guard James Harden for that many possessions while taking over the game offensively as well, hitting tough shot after tough shot with unreal efficiency. Leonard is in a class with only LeBron James in that respect, able to take the toughest assignment, and produce the like that offensively with the constant focus upon him.
"We put Kawhi on James because he's a good defender," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after the game. "And James is a great player. It's not rocket science."
To be sure, a player of Harden's stature having an off night is never the product of just defense, or any one factor. Harden tweaked his hip in the first quarter, though he said he was fine after the game, and was coughing and sniffling post-game. Harden maintained he just "missed layups," and he was in fact 1 of 7 at the rim. But much of that was due to Leonard's defense; the Spurs never had to send help. They could stay home, and then meet him at the rim with their bigs.
(Some, Harden genuinely did just miss, especially two second-half shots vs. Manu Ginobili. It's never just one thing when a player like Harden has a night this bad.)
Handling that assignment is a monstrous task, as Popovich glibly admitted after the game:
"We ask him to do a lot," Popovich stated with a blank face. "That's what great players do."
By contrast, Harden was slow on every rotation weak-side to Danny Green, which opened up the Spurs' offense, got the Rockets' defense scrambling to recover, and unlocked a Spurs' offense that was in a coma in Game 1.
Leonard wasn't the only reason for the Spurs' victory, but every time their offense started to stall, there he was getting another tough shot to fall. Every time the Rockets got momentum, there he was mucking things up. The Spurs also had Leonard helping more aggressively on plays where he was locked in the corner, allowing him to play more free safety and then recover hard. That, along with rebounds and better shooting, unlocked the Spurs' formula for a win.
The road uphill is still daunting. The Spurs head to Houston with a split series, having lost home-court advantage, and the Spurs' behavior after the game Wednesday indicated they do not expect Tony Parker back for this series after he. It is unlikely Harden will play this poorly again, but still, for all the jokes (well, semi-jokes) about Leonard being an invincible robot, fatigue will be a factor with the load he's carrying.
But Leonard showed Wednesday that he can really do it all. Lock down the opposing team's best player. Score efficiently in volume. Make plays. Deliver when needed most. The Spurs will need more of that, but just knowing they have that in Leonard has to give them confidence, regardless of Parker's situation. They have a chance to win because their best guy can take over at both ends, in the same game, no matter the matchup.
And that, suffice it to say, is valuable.