Posts Tagged ‘Kawhi Leonard’

Steve Fisher has retired as San Diego State basketball coach and it certainly is the right time for his departure.

His final team wasn’t all that good — 19-14 to snap a streak of 11 straight 20-win campaigns — while playing in a Mountain West that was mediocre at best and now firmly entrenched as a one-bid league when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.

Several times this season, I tossed out social media comments that it would be Fab Five Fish’s final season. It just had that feeling about it.

Longtime assistant coach Brian Dutcher — one of the most genuinely nice people in college basketball — takes over the program.

Fisher, 72, went 386-209 in 18 seasons with the Aztecs and posted 12 20-win seasons and led the program to eight NCAA Tournament appearances, including a string of six straight.

Making six straight NCAA Tournament appearances was surreal for a program which was among the worst in the nation when Fisher was hired.

Remember, I was covering that awful program when Fisher was hired and he was far from the preferred target.

I broke the story that then-Utah coach Rick Majerus interviewed for the job and Majerus was close to taking it a few days later before he said no. Fran Fraschilla also was offered the job (nope, I didn’t break that one) as was then-Gonzaga coach Dan Monson (yep, broke that one and was waiting at the airport for his Sunday night flight to arrive and when he didn’t come out of the jet way, I knew that was a problem for San Diego State).

At that point, then-athletic director Rick Bay turned to Fisher, who was desperate to get back into college coaching. He had been fired at Michigan a few years earlier and I still remember how stunned I was upon meeting him that he had gray hair in 1999, just a few years after having a full head of brown hair while coaching the Wolverines.

The Aztecs were putrid in his first season and went 5-23 and then Fisher booted five inherited players off the team to free up scholarships.

Two seasons later, led by junior-college transfer Randy Holcomb, the Aztecs made the NCAA Tournament. Credibility had arrived for a program that previously had none.

Eventually, the 20-win seasons became an annual thing but there was still the matter of the program having ZERO NCAA Tournament wins. And you really don’t have a program if you’ve never won an NCAA Tournament game.

Finally, the Kawhi Leonard-led Aztecs had the best season in program history in 2010-11 with a 34-3 mark — a season that will still be the best in school history in 2117 if the world exists.

San Diego State finally got that elusive NCAA tourney win by beating Northern Colorado and eventually lost in the Sweet 16 to eventual national champion Connecticut. The Aztecs also topped 30 wins when they went 31-5 in 2013-14 and again reached the Sweet 16 before falling to Arizona.

If you haven’t figured it out, 30-win seasons aren’t supposed to be accomplishments achieved by the San Diego States of the college basketball landscape.

Last season’s final hurrah was not a good one for Fisher but he certainly elevated the program to heights nobody foresaw. Dutcher has been his right-hand man for all of those 18 seasons so the program philosophy won’t change.

The challenge for Dutcher is to have last season’s subpar campaign be an aberration. Once programs like San Diego State fall back into being just another mid-major program in a poor basketball league, it becomes harder to rise back up. Isn’t that right, UNLV?

But know this: Dutcher steps into a far better situation than the one Fisher inherited. The days where nobody cared that San Diego State even had a basketball program seems like centuries ago.

It was a good run for Steve Fisher but good for him to recognize that it was time for him to depart.

San Diego State has produced a signature basketball player and nothing seems more surreal than a product of the Aztecs’ program having the label of “NBA Finals MVP” affixed to his name.

Kawhi Leonard will be forever be referred to as the 2014 MVP after winning the honors for leading the San Antonio Spurs to a five-game series win over the Miami Heat. Leonard was sensational over the final three games of the series as San Antonio routed LeBron James and friends. (see stellar recap here – http://cbpost.sportsdirectinc.com/basketball/nba-boxscores.aspx?page=/data/NBA/results/2013-2014/recap882694.html).

If the world ends tomorrow, we’ll all know the reason: The creator of the universe can’t fathom this scenario of a San Diego State player being MVP of the finals and shuts down all the planets in response.

I covered San Diego State’s program for 13 seasons and I was an expert at writing about 20-point losses. Few players were actually good, even fewer people attended games and nobody cared the school had a hoops program.

Things eventually got better after Steve Fisher arrived as coach but I still only covered two NCAA tournament games – both losses – over the next eight seasons before being promoted to the NFL beat.

San Diego State finally won an NCAA tournament game in 2011 – yep, with Leonard on the team – and he already had crafted the second-best career in program history in just two seasons before departing for the NBA and landing with the Spurs.

In just three NBA seasons, he has already supplanted Michael Cage – the four-year San Diego State superstar who remains the best player in program history – as the best Aztecs’ player on the NBA level.

Cage won an NBA rebounding crown in the early portion of his 15-year NBA career in easily making the most impact of any player produced by the school. But now, at age 22, Leonard has surpassed him and given the Aztecs the type of marquee product that can deeply aid recruiting.

In the early part of Fisher’s tenure, he attempted to recruit high-level players by bringing up the “Fab Five” players he coached at Michigan. He had nothing to sell at San Diego State other than a vision so it made sense that he was tapping into his past.

With the Aztecs not part of an elite conference, they will always have trouble getting the best of the best recruits – even a local high school All-American like Chase Budinger didn’t give them a sniff – and what happened in these NBA Finals will be a big help.

San Diego State will always be able to point out that it produced a player who was named NBA Finals MVP. Kind of hard for outsiders and other coaches to ridicule that fact.

The cool thing is Leonard is just scratching his potential. When veterans Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili retire sometime in the near future – and Tony Parker follows suit later this decade – Leonard is going to be the next San Antonio superstar. He is only going to get better as he improves his game.

And the timing of Leonard claiming MVP honors on Father’s day is also significant as his father was murdered more than six years ago.

Pretty good story for a pretty good – and getting better – player. And now someone San Diego State can forever point to as a basketball legend.

Here we are heading into Game 5 and Miami’s Chris Bosh is telling us the Heat will beat San Antonio on Sunday night to keep the series alive.

Might be easier to believe him if Miami’s play was leaving that impression. It is actions that count – not words – and the manner in which the Heat got drubbed by the Spurs in back-to-back games doesn’t make one want to buy in to anybody’s vocal proclamations.

That includes anything LeBron James might say. The guy who repeatedly tells us he doesn’t look ahead and just focuses on the moment went one step further than Bosh did when his gums started flapping.

James knows that teams that trail 3-1 in the NBA Finals are pretty much goners. He knows nobody has ever recovered from that hole to win the NBA title.

“Why not us? History is broken all the time,” James told reporters while apparently forgetting that he only lives in the moment. “And obviously we know we’re against the greatest of odds. No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the finals but there was a point where no team came back from a 2-0.

“There was a point where no team came back from a 3-1 or 3-0 deficit in the ALCS, and then the Red Sox did it against the Yankees.”

So if you see Dave Roberts on the floor in San Antonio trying to steal a base, you can begin to get worried. Otherwise, there is no evidence that shows anything other than this: The Spurs will win this series, whether it is Sunday or another night.

Here is the stellar Game 5 preview — http://cbpost.sportsdirectinc.com/basketball/nba-preview.aspx?page=/data/nba/matchups/g5_preview_2.html

Some other thoughts:

–San Antonio small forward Kawhi Leonard might be walking away with NBA Finals MVP honors if he has a third straight strong game. The complexion of the series changed when Leonard exploded with the highest-scoring effort of his career in Game 3. If he has an average game Sunday and the Spurs win, look for veteran Tim Duncan (three double-doubles over the first four games) to claim it.

–All indications are that Duncan will return for at least one more season and why wouldn’t he? He still is a force at age 38 and has been one of the top players on the floor throughout the entire playoffs. Besides, he will get paid $10.3 million next year and retiring and finding another line of work wouldn’t close come to being that lucrative.

–In the previous 31 times a team has taken a 3-1 lead, the NBA Finals ended in five games on 16 occasions. Only twice has a series gone seven times and the last time that happened was way back in 1966.

It isn’t that the Miami Heat can’t win three straight games.

It’s more about if you can imagine them winning on Sunday.

I don’t see them winning, not after that horrid performance in Thursday’s 107-86 loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the pivotal Game 4 of the NBA Finals.

In fact, I think there’s more of a chance of Landon Donovan being added to the United States soccer roster for next Monday’s World Cup opener than there is of this series going the distance.

And the odds of Donovan being restored to his proper standing is none. Same as the Heat’s chances of winning the series – nil – after the embarrassing effort that has them trailing 3-1 in the series.

San Antonio routed the Heat by an average of 20 points in the two games in Miami and did everything but steal money from kids in the stands during the back-to-back beatdowns. (see stellar recap here — http://sltrib.sportsdirectinc.com/basketball/nba-boxscores.aspx?page=/data/NBA/results/2013-2014/recap882693.html).

I expect the Spurs to win the series on Sunday and then LeBron James can go about his business of luring more All-Star players to Miami to see if the Heat can compete with San Antonio next June.

Some other thoughts:

–There are rumors that the Heat could be a possible landing spot for New York star Carmelo Anthony. Based on how poorly Miami played in an important game, Anthony would fit in fine. Touche.

–Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard got the message after his poor efforts in the first two games and has been the star of the past two games. My mom thinks Leonard got motivated by my MrSportsBlog post but I’m guessing Leonard isn’t spending much time reading about himself. In a league full of egomaniacs, the soft-spoken Leonard is on the other side of the spectrum.

–Saw the Air Force basketball player bio of Gregg Popovich the other day and the final line was a classic – “his future plans include happiness.” Wonder if winning a fifth NBA title will make the legendary coach smile and feel proud. Um, probably not.

The Miami Heat never lose a postseason game if they lost the previous outing, right?

That fact will be put to the test on Thursday when Miami faces the San Antonio Spurs in the pivotal Game 4 of the NBA Finals.

San Antonio shellacked the Heat in Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead. Miami’s chances of winning the series are much better if they win tonight due to the format being changed from 2-3-2 to 2-2-1-1-1.

Lose Game 4 and Miami heads back to San Antonio with the Spurs having the chance to close it out.

So that streak looms large as tip-off approaches. The last 13 times the Heat have lost a playoff game, they have roared back to win the following game.

Miami needs to stretch that to 14 – or risk dropping its odds of winning a third straight title to a dire level. (See stellar preview here – http://www.ksat.com/sports/Spurs/2014-nba-finals/game-4-preview-spurs-at-heat/26453164)

Some other thoughts:

–Miami’s LeBron James figures to come out charging in Game 4 after being held to eight points over the final three quarters of Game 3. The Heat standout was outplayed by San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard (career-high 29 points) and his play doesn’t match up with a guy averaging 27.3 points in the series. Also alarming is that King James has more turnovers (15) than assists (13).

–Pretty amazing that San Antonio started Game 3 by making 19-of-21 shots and set an NBA Finals record by shooting 75.8 percent in a half. The Spurs obviously played superb but the Heat players certainly needed to take long looks at themselves in the mirror. That type of subpar defensive performance shouldn’t occur in Game 3 of the regular season, let alone Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

–Is Mario Chalmers home? Is he missing? Is an impostor wearing his jersey? Guys like Chalmers don’t typically win you an NBA Finals but they can help you lose one. The Spurs are dominating the point-guard matchup with Tony Parker and Patty Mills and Chalmers has been flat-out abysmal. He has 10 points on 3-of-12 shooting in the series with as many turnovers as assists (nine each).

That was quite a statement the San Antonio Spurs made while cruising to a convincing 111-92 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the NBA Finals.

San Antonio opened Tuesday’s game by making 19-of-21 shots and actually reached 50 points before the Heat made it to 30. The Spurs led by as many as 25, held off a Miami charge, and kicked it back into gear in the final quarter.

Kawhi Leonard scored a career-best 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting to pace the Spurs and Danny Green contributed 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting. San Antonio shot 59.4 percent overall while putting on a shooting clinic. (See stellar recap here – http://sltrib.sportsdirectinc.com/basketball/nba-boxscores.aspx?page=/data/NBA/results/2013-2014/recap882692.html).

Miami lost a home playoff game for the first time this postseason and you would have thought the Heat were playing in somebody else’s building while digging the huge deficit. LeBron James scored 22 points but 14 of them came in the first quarter.

The Heat will attempt to tie the series in Thursday’s Game 4. It should be noted Miami trailed last season’s series 2-1 also before winning three of the next four to claim the title.

Some other thoughts:

–Miami has won 13 consecutive postseason games following a loss and the impressive streak will be put to the test in Game 4. The competitiveness of James and guard Dwyane Wade seemingly soars another couple octaves higher whenever their backs are against the wall.

–Leonard picked a good time to emerge from his slumber with the standout outing. I mentioned his subpar series performance shortly before tip-off and the former San Diego State standout responded by scoring 16 first-quarter points on 5-of-5 shooting. San Antonio badly needs this Leonard and not the one that showed up for Games 1 and 2.

–Heat veteran Shane Battier has played just 16 minutes in the series and has yet to score. When Miami had no answers on how to keep the Spurs from scoring in Game 3, it might have been worth throwing Battier in there for a few minutes.

Kawhi Leonard is a silent person but being silent production-wise in the NBA Finals is not a good development.

The San Antonio Spurs need their small forward to rediscover his game as they play the pivotal Game 3 against the Miami Heat on Tuesday.

Leonard made a name for himself in last season’s NBA Finals but has been practically nonexistent in the first two games of this series. The former San Diego State standout is averaging just nine points and two rebounds and has struggled to defend LeBron James through the first two games.

Basically, only James’ own health issues have slowed him down thus far and Leonard, a second-team All-NBA defensive selection, needs to start putting down the clamps on the man known for getting leg cramps.

The Spurs can’t win this series if Leonard doesn’t up his performance. (See stellar Game 3 preview here – http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/140610/preview-spurs-at-heat).

Some other thoughts:

–ABC showed a graphic during Game 2 that displayed that San Antonio standout Tim Duncan has played in more playoff games than 17 different NBA franchises. That is a remarkable fact.

–Speaking of Duncan, he has two double-doubles in the series to raise his postseason count to 157 to match the record held by former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson. That is almost two regular seasons worth of double-doubles.

–We won’t know until the series is over whether or not Heat standouts James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade will opt out of their contracts and become free agents or stick with Miami. Nobody has sacrificed more than Bosh over the past four seasons and you wonder if he might be the guy that wants to go somewhere else and again be the focal point of a team.

LeBron James made it through an entire basketball game without experiencing leg cramps. Imagine that.

The hottest component of Game 2 of the NBA Finals was the superstar’s play as James had 35 points and 10 rebounds and the Miami Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs 98-96 to even the series at one game apiece.

We all got to have a lot of fun at James’ expense after the facility in San Antonio was more like a sauna in Game 1 and the leg cramps served to deliver James a technical knockout. He apparently drank more fluids and took more supplements and appreciated that the Spurs finally figured out who could fix the air-conditioning system.

After a first-quarter in which he had more turnovers (three) than points (two), King James dominated the contest. He ended up 14-of-22 shooting and had little trouble shedding the defensive efforts of San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard as well as the nickname “Cramp Man.” (see stellar recap here – http://sltrib.sportsdirectinc.com/basketball/nba-boxscores.aspx?page=/data/NBA/results/2013-2014/recap882691.html).

Game 3 will be Tuesday in Miami as the Heat looks to take the lead in the series for the first time.

Some other thoughts:

–The stats say Dwyane Wade averaged 16.5 points over the first two games but the Miami Heat guard has had little impact. Almost hard to know when he’s on the floor as he no longer is an impact player. Sad to see a player who used to be a dominating talent settle into decline mode.

–Spurs power forward Tim Duncan had 18 points and 15 rebounds to tie Magic Johnson’s record of 157 career postseason double-doubles. But he also was invisible in the final quarter when he went scoreless and both Duncan and point guard Tony Parker missed two free throws in a nine-second span midway through the stanza. Duncan was stellar over the first seven quarters of the series before the empty fourth in Game 2.

–Chris Bosh hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 2 and also had another terrific play late in the contest. The Spurs opted to play defense instead of fouling in the final seconds and the Heat were able to both run the clock down and score a basket. Bosh made a move in which the Spurs thought he would settle for a short jumper in the lane and instead dished a pinpoint pass to Wade for a layup and a five-point lead.

It is time for San Diego State to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

Period.

When you earn a 4 seed in the 68-team field, it means the selection committee feels you are a Sweet 16 squad. So anything short of playing in the second week would be a huge failure.

A first-game loss to New Mexico State – coached by former Aztecs assistant Marvin Menzies – would rate as a huge disappointment. Losing in the round of 32 to either Oklahoma – a squad San Diego State defeated in last year’s tournament – or upstart North Dakota State would also rate as a subpar showing.

The school likes to boast about how its program is now among the best on the West Coast and this is the season to prove it. Even with all the accolades and honors over the past decade, San Diego State still only has three measly NCAA tournament wins in its history.

Repeat, three. Let that sink in – THREE.

Two of those three wins were in the same season when an NBA talent named Kawhi Leonard was on the roster and guided the Aztecs to the Sweet 16.

The other NCAA victory came last season but was followed up by something that is soooooooo San Diego State when it comes right down to it. The Aztecs were punked – and dunked – out of the building by 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast.

The four-team group San Diego State (29-4) is part of this season is easily manageable. Even though Menzies knows the thoughts of coach Steve Fisher and lead assistant Brian Dutcher like the back of his hand, his Aggies shouldn’t be able to defeat the Aztecs unless center Sim Bhullar – all 7-foot-5, 355 pounds of him – makes like “Man Mountain Mike” of wrestling fame and tramples each San Diego State player one at a time.

Barring that occurrence, I don’t see the 13thseeded Aggies having a realistic shot at the upset.

The fifth-seeded Sooners are better than they were last season but San Diego State should still get past them unless Oklahoma goes nuts from behind the 3-point line and the Aztecs fall into one of their patented ruts where they can’t score.

And I can tell you this from all the years I covered San Diego State’s basketball program – Fisher owns Sooners coach Lon Kruger. Fab Five Fish won 13 of the 18 head-to-head meetings when Kruger was UNLV’s coach.

North Dakota State isn’t a bad 12 seed but the squad would be mighty ecstatic just by beating Oklahoma and getting the program’s first-ever NCAA victory. Would the Bison and star player Taylor Braun be able to bounce back with a second premier performance two days later?

San Diego State fans are already salivating about the possibility of a rematch against top-seeded Arizona in the Sweet 16 in Anaheim – one of the Aztecs’ four losses was to the Wildcats – but shouldn’t get too far ahead of themselves.

The focus needs to be on San Diego State — and standout guard Xavier Thames — taking care of business in Spokane first.

When you have a 3-9 overall record in your entire NCAA history – remember, it takes six wins to claim a national championship – the schools you face are not going to be intimidated. The Aztecs aren’t Arizona or Duke or Kansas or Louisville or Michigan State or even Villanova and opponents aren’t going to wilt at the sight of them.

I covered the first NCAA tournament game of the Fisher era in 2003 and the Aztecs didn’t even belong in the United Center with Illinois and were crushed 93-64.

I covered the second NCAA tourney game of the Fisher era in 2006 and the Aztecs fell apart in the final half-minute (or as the red-haired Union-Tribune reporter termed it to me immediately afterward – “they choked”). Indiana had no business winning the game but Brandon Heath – showing exactly why NBA scouts felt he didn’t have the ball-handling skills to play in their league – dribbled the ball off his own calf with San Diego State possessing the lead and the Hoosiers stole a victory.

It took four years after that for the Aztecs to get back to the NCAA tournament – thankfully I was no longer in the declining newspaper industry – and I remain surprised that San Diego State lost to Tennessee in the 2010 NCAA tournament.

Then came the Sweet 16 squad – the victories were over Northern Colorado and Temple – and there was no shame in losing to a Connecticut squad led by Kemba Walker that won the national title.

The following year (2012), I correctly predicted that San Diego State didn’t match up well with North Carolina State and the Aztecs proved me correct with a 14-point loss.

Then came last season’s win over Oklahoma and the loss to Florida Gulf Coast and now you can only wonder if San Diego State is ready to make its mark.

The Mountain West has been a huge disappointment in recent NCAA tournaments so the pressure is certainly on both San Diego State and New Mexico not to underachieve this season.

Two of San Diego State’s four losses this season were to the Lobos and the signature victory was a road win at Kansas. The Aztecs defeated certain national Player of the Year Doug McDermott and Creighton on a neutral court and were a stellar 14-3 away from home.

But none of this means anything when the NCAA tournament starts. And it certainly doesn’t matter that the shameless self-promoters at San Diego State fancy the school as one of the best programs in the nation.

Put it this way: The top programs in the country make deep runs in the NCAA tournament.

Right now – in 2014 – it is simply time for San Diego State to step up or shut up.

Two victories should be a mere formality. Win three games and reach the Elite Eight and the program can brag all it wants.

Don’t make it out of Spokane unblemished and the season rates this way – a huge disappointment.

Period.

There seems to be suggestions that San Diego State standout Jamaal Franklin made a mistake by entering the 2013 NBA Draft.

Those opinions hinge on the fact that Franklin fell to the 41st pick – nearly the middle of the second round – before the Memphis Grizzlies mercifully ended his plunge and selected him.

There is no guaranteed money for players who don’t get picked in the first round so it didn’t take long for people to say Franklin messed up by applying for the draft.

But simply put, the fact that Franklin fell like a boulder in the draft doesn’t mean he made the wrong decision.

There is one undeniable fact that you just can’t overlook – Thursday’s draft was one of the weakest ever.

If Franklin was ever going to be a first-round pick, this was the year. Even if he had returned to San Diego State and had a third consecutive solid season, it wouldn’t have guaranteed that he’d be anything more than a second-round pick in the 2014 draft.

His outside shooting didn’t improve between his sophomore and junior campaigns so who says it would have suddenly been stellar if he returned for a senior season?

His 6-foot-5 size makes him a shooting guard in the NBA – particularly since his ball-handling abilities aren’t good enough for him to play the point – so that porous 28 percent shooting from the shorter college 3-point line was deservedly an issue.

Then tack on his immaturity and occasional character issues and you can see why many NBA teams said “pass” when there were plenty of other choices on their draft boards.

I was a bit surprised to see there were “draft experts” – draft guessers would be more accurate – that had Franklin going as high as 15th to 20th in the draft. I thought he had a chance to be among the final selections of the 30-pick first round and would certainly be plucked early in the second.

Instead he fell to No. 41 with the Grizzlies, which isn’t a bad landing spot.

Memphis is among the top five teams in the Western Conference and Franklin’s aggressive style and in-your-face defense is a good fit for a franchise that prides itself on a grinding style of play. The fact that the Grizzlies’ home facility is now known as “The Grindhouse” speaks to that success.

So now Franklin has a lot of work to do – and undoubtedly has a pretty large chip on his shoulder. The message has been sent that the majority of NBA teams possess doubts about his shooting ability and that others had concerns about his attitude.

Franklin was the only player in college basketball to lead his team in scoring (17.0), rebounding (9.5), assists (3.3) and steals (1.6) last season and is a stellar athlete. His back-to-back solid campaigns allowed the Aztecs to continue to be a player on the national stage after the school-best 34-3 campaign of 2010-11 when budding NBA star Kawhi Leonard boosted the stature of the program.

Whether or not Franklin makes an NBA roster or ends up making a living playing overseas is all on him.

And however it turns out, know this: Franklin did not make a mistake by applying for the 2013 NBA Draft.

Plunge or not, this was his best chance to hit the guaranteed money that comes with being a first-round pick.