San Antonio faced a test for the first time in the 2016 post season, only Kawhi Leoanrd was there to provide all of the answers.
In his first appearance since accepting the 2016 NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, he lifted the Spurs to a 3-0 victory by dominating on both ends of the floor, becoming the first player in playoff history to ever submit five rejections and convert five times from 3-point range in the same contest.
Despite the dominant defensive presence Leonard provided, the Grizzlies clung onto a single point advantage heading into the final quarter Friday night, before the 24-year-old prevented them from getting any closer.
Leonard poured in 13 of his playoff career-high 32 points in the fourth quarter, capping an effort that included seven rebounds, six made shots from 3-point range, five blocks, four steals and two rebounds.
The shorthanded Memphis gave the Spurs all they could handle during a 96-87 Game 3 defeat, but Leonard found a way to overcome their intense pressure.
A free throw from Matt Barnes midway through the second quarter gave the Grizzlies their first lead since a 3-pointer from Vince Carter gave the team a 3-2 advantage during the opening minutes of Game 1, only Leonard issued an immediate response.
Just 16 second after San Antonio surrendered its lead, Leonard buried a 3-pointer from the corner, restoring order for the team.
When Memphis tried to respond offensively, Leonard often managed to find a way to reroute the flight path of a shot, matching his season-high in rejections.
The Spurs staged a 9-0 run in the fourth quarter, enough to recapture a lead the team wouldn’t surrender for the rest of the night.
The win moves coach San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich one victory away from completing his ninth sweep in a best-of-seven playoff series. If the Spurs complete the sweep, Popovich will break a tie with Phil Jackson for the most in a
By the time the final buzzer sounded, Leonard sank 11-of-22 attempts from the field, shot 6-of-9 from 3-point range and made 4-of-5 attempts from the free throw line.
Manu Ginobili fed the ball into Leonard as he posted up, after he was unable to shake off Allen with a jab step or nine dribbles, he was forced to put up a shot to avoid a shot clock violation.
Allen prevented Leonard from getting into the paint and forced him to take a heavily contested 11-foot jumper, but the low arching shot clanged off the back iron and fell through the net, giving San Antonio a seven point advantage.
Any thoughts of a comeback in the final minute were dashed as Leonard launched an uncontested 3-pointer from the corner, the shot rattled against both sides of the rim prior to elevating up and gently dropping through.
The combination of long range acumen, shot blocking ability and flawless execution has never been submitted this late in the season.
He became the first player since Shaquille O’Neal to post at least 30 points, five blocks and not commit a turnover in a post season game since May 20, 2000.
O’Neal, Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing were the only players in playoff history to ever post a 30 point, five rebound, zero turnover game.
Leonard’s efforts have helped the Spurs register one of their most dominant defensive efforts in playoff history, as the 229 points the team has surrendered through three post season games is the second-fewest the team has ever allowed to start a playoff series.
During the first three games of the 1999 Wester Conference finals, Portland managed to score just 224 points in the first three games of the series.
Even if the Spurs fold defensively, Leonard proved he is capable of providing enough of a lift on the offensive end to clinch a playoff victory.