In one of his best playoff performances, Kawhi Leonard led the San Antonio Spurs to first-round domination of the Grizzlies back in 2017
Before he captured his second NBA title with the Toronto Raptors, in his final full year with the San Antonio Spurs Kawhi Leonard had an all-time great playoff performance. He had shown incredible promise throughout the year but his first-round domination of the Memphis Grizzlies shot The Klaw into the ranks of the best two-way players in the game.
Kawhi’s gradual rise from a lockdown defender, to Finals MVP, to all-around superstar was far from certain. Even Gregg Popovich told Jonathan Abrams with Bleacher Report that he didn’t expect the drastic growth that the Spurs got from Kawhi.
Leonards 2016-17 season was a masterclass in how to impact the game on both ends of the floor. It’s the season that deservedly got him on our San Antonio Spurs All-Time Roster. He averaged 25.5 points per game on .486/.38/.88 shooting splits while also contributing 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 steals, and .7 blocks per game.
After putting in countless hours with the Spurs coaching staff his full game was finally coming together. He ended the season in the top-three of both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year voting. But he was still saving his best for last.
In the first round of the playoffs, San Antonio was matched up with a Memphis squad that had given them trouble in the past. This was the last hurrah of the Grit N’ Grind Grizzlies and they were determined not to go down without a fight.
Kawhi led the Spurs to victories in back to back wins in San Antonio. He had been the Spurs leader all season and his command of the game was on full display. He led the Spurs in scoring both nights, recording 32 in Game 1 and following it up with an impressive 37 in Game 2. He was also the spearhead of a San Antonio defense that was able to keep Memphis from shooting over 40 percent from the floor in the first two games.
After being punched in the mouth down in San Antonio, the Grizzlies responded with a commanding Game 3 win back in Memphis. They limited Leonard to just 18 points, his lowest of the series, and took Game 3 105-94.
But like any good fighter, Kawhi understood that it wasn’t about how hard you got knocked down, It was about how you got up. He tore through the Grizzlies defense in Game 4, torching them for 43 points. The 3-point shot, an area of his game that had once been the biggest question mark, had become his most dangerous weapon. He hit 7 of 10 of his long-range attempts and even though San Antonio would lose Game 4 and head back to Texas with the series tied 2-2 you could feel the momentum shift drastically in the Spurs favor.
After their frustrating Game 4 loss in Memphis, you knew the Spurs were going to respond on their home court. Game 5 wasn’t close. A well-rounded Spurs attack led by Leonard, Tony Parker, and Patty Mills helped San Antonio take a 3-2 lead with potential closeout game looming in the Grindhouse.
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The Spurs came out in attack mode. Kawhi went cold from behind the arc, only hitting one of his five 3-point attempts in the game, but made up for it at the free-throw line. He went to the line a series-high 13 times and knocked down 12 of his free-throw attempts. And with the victory nearly in hand, he did some of his best work.
He scored 10 of the Spurs 28 points in the fourth quarter, including one momentum-shifting three and three free throws. He was simply too dominant and too powerful for the Grizzlies to corral.
When all was said and done, Kawhi had led the Spurs to an impressive 4-2 series victory over Memphis. He averaged 31.2 points, 6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 2 steals per night while shooting 55 percent from the floor and 48 percent from deep. He had the mid-range fadeaway going like Kobe, was lethal from deep, and was, as he always was, a defensive monster.
This playoff run would eventually end with the injury that ended it all for Kawhi and the Spurs. Nothing was the same after he got hurt in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors. There’s still a bit of frustration with how everything ended but we can look back fondly on the great moments that Kawhi did have in the silver and black.