Spurs can’t help but smile at play of stoic Leonard

By Jeff McDonald

The 66th game of his NBA career had ended. The TV lights had faded and most of the microphones that had semi-circled his locker just moments earlier had disappeared in search of someone more quotable.

It was then and there, in the aftermath of the Spurs’ resounding Game 2 victory over Utah on Wednesday, that Kawhi Leonard chose to reveal his best-kept secret.

“I do smile,” Leonard said.

And then he did. Sort of. The left corner of Leonard’s mouth inched north ever so slightly, briefly transforming the Spurs’ enigmatic rookie small forward into a Mona Lisa in braids.

Just like that, it was gone. The instant passed without anyone bothering to capture photographic evidence of the Loch Ness monster of NBA facial expressions.

For Leonard’s teammates, who have come to regard the soft-spoken 20-year-old as the type of player who could make it stone-faced through a tickle fight, the moment was one that had to be seen to be believed.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen it before,” Manu Ginobili said of Leonard’s grin. “Not for more than a second. Or a fourth of a second.”

In the crucible of his first NBA playoff series, which the Spurs lead 2-0 heading into Game 3 on Saturday in Utah, Leonard’s seeming inability to feel neither pleasure nor pressure has been a blessing.

Quietly — because how else would he do it? — the 6-foot-7 rookie from San Diego State is having quite an impact on the top-seeded Spurs’ manhandling of the No. 8 seed Jazz.

During the Spurs’ 114-83 picnic in Game 2, Leonard hit 6 of 7 shots, including 3 of 4 3-pointers, on his way to 17 points. It was the highest-scoring playoff game for a Spurs rookie since Ginobili went for 21 against Dallas in Game 4 of the 2003 Western Conference finals.

Leonard did it without beating his chest. Or, save for a momentary lapse in the postgame locker room, without cracking a smile.

“He’s got a way about him,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s not so anxious to show us that he’s got every move in the world. He’s level-headed and takes things as they come. Which is great, because he blends in with everybody else.”

Leonard, for his part, doesn’t quite understand why everyone keeps asking him to smile more, as if every day were team picture day.

“That’s just my character on the court,” Leonard said. “Act like I’ve been here before.”

Yet his lack of outward emotion often belies a potpourri of feelings inside. He is not made of stone, even if he sometimes appears to be doing a spot-on impression of Mount Rushmore.

“I am excited,” Leonard insisted. “I’m out there playing hard. If I was down, I wouldn’t be playing hard basketball.”

Other Spurs admit they at first didn’t quite know what to make of the draft-day trade that brought Leonard to town last June. General manager R.C. Buford had to send George Hill — a versatile and popular backup guard — to Indiana to make it happen.

The deal was a gamble, and even Leonard’s soon-to-be teammates knew it.

“I was definitely shocked, even upset,” Ginobili said. “I loved playing with George.”

It didn’t take long for the quiet kid with the braids to win fans in his new locker room.

With giraffe-neck arms and hands that could palm Jupiter, Leonard is a born rebounder — he averaged 5.1 in 24 minutes per game during the regular season — and a steals machine. His ability to run the floor and finish fast breaks has given the Spurs’ transition game an extra gear.

Those are the things that make him stand out. As impressive to his veteran teammates are the ways in which he fits in.

The never-smiling thing is part of it.

“He doesn’t get too upset, and he doesn’t get too pumped up,” Ginobili said. “He just plays. That’s basically who we are.”

And basically who Leonard has always been.

There is but one scenario Leonard could envision that might cause him unveil his full-on, ear-to-ear, 5-year-old-at-Disneyland grin.

And if the Spurs’ luck breaks just right between now and late June, they just might get to see it.

“You might see it,” Leonard said. “If we win the championship.”

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN


Game 1:

Game 2:

Game 3 Saturday: Spurs @Jazz, 9 p.m.
TV: FSNSW, TNT Radio: WOAI-AM 1200; KCOR-AM 1350?

Game 4 Monday: Spurs @Jazz, TBD
TV: FSNSW, TBD Radio: WOAI-AM 1200; KCOR-AM 1350?

* Game 5 Wednesday: Jazz @Spurs, TBD
TV: FSNSW, TBD Radio: WOAI-AM 1200; KCOR-AM 1350?

* Game 6 May 11: Spurs @Jazz, TBD
TV: FSNSW, TBD Radio: WOAI-AM 1200; KCOR-AM 1350?

* Game 7 May 13: Jazz @Spurs, TBD
TV: TBD Radio: WOAI-AM 1200; KCOR-AM 1350?

* — As needed in best-of-7 series

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