Both showed hints of dismissiveness about Leonard’s recent penchant for playing at a higher level against James and the Cavaliers.
“What he did tonight is what he’s been doing all season,” James said.
Leonard, who scored a game-high 25 points on 52.3 percent shooting in the win, pointed out “the whole team, not just myself” gets up for games against James and the Cavaliers.
“Everybody on my team wants to play a better matchup every night,” Leonard said. “It’s just fun. It’s fun basketball. That’s what you live for. It’s just amazing that we get paid to play this sport.”
Leonard’s head-to-head performances against James have been getting better. Leonard owns a regular-season record of 5-3 against James, including James' time with the Miami Heat. Leonard finished with 12, 11 and 12 points in the first three outings pitting the two. Since then, Leonard has scored 24, 20, 24 and, back on Jan. 27, 41 points, before rolling up the 25 on Monday night at the AT&T Center.
Leonard also owns the 2014 NBA Finals MVP award, coming at the expense of James and the Heat following a 4-1 series win by the Spurs.
With Leonard leading the way Monday, the Spurs moved to 9-1 against top-five teams for a winning percentage of .900, the second-best in a season in NBA history, behind only last year’s Golden State Warriors (10-1), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Four of the previous six teams to win at least 80 percent of their contests against top-five teams captured a title.
The Spurs improved to 4-0 against the Warriors and Cavaliers this season, winning by an average of 20.8 points per game, and they’ve defeated both those teams this season by 29 points. According to Elias, San Antonio ranks as the fifth team in the past 50 seasons to beat each of the previous season’s NBA Finals participants by at least 25 points in a regular season.
On the other side, the Cavaliers reached a low point in both of James’ tenures in Cleveland, as the 74 points the team scored Monday ranked as its fewest since Feb. 26, 2009, at Houston, when players such as Mo Williams, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Delonte West, and Ben Wallace were in the starting lineup, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information.
“The way we’ve been struggling, this is the last team that you want to play, a well-oiled machine like this,” James said. “They exploit everything that you’re not doing well.”
Leonard knocked down as many unassisted field goals (5) as the Cavaliers did through the first three quarters on Monday, connecting on 5 of 11 on unassisted attempts prior to the fourth quarter, while Cleveland shot 5-of-28 on such attempts.
“Teams are gonna make shots,” James explained. “You know, like the shot Kawhi made at the end of the second quarter. He had two guys on him, contested shot, one-hand jump hook from the free throw line. If you have more possessions like that, then the percentages will go down. The more and more possessions you have where guys are just standing alone, taking shots with no contest or guys are getting open layups, then the percentages are gonna go up.”
James left the game after suffering a blow to the middle of his upper-back area in the third quarter with the Cavaliers behind by 24 points. James absorbed the blow while standing under the basket as Spurs forward/center David Lee pulled down a rebound with his elbow coming into contact with the Cavaliers forward.
James said he’s “fine,” after sustaining the shot, which occurred with 28 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Leonard, meanwhile, dismissed any notion of San Antonio’s win over the defending NBA champion Cavaliers holding any extra significance.
In the playoffs, Leonard’s record against James is 7-5, but the latter averages 10.6 more points and 4.5 more assists.
“This doesn’t mean anything,” Leonard said. “It doesn’t mean we’re going to win the championship or even go to the finals. We did a good job tonight, like I said, of coming out early, being aggressive and keeping our foot on the pedal. Just hopefully we can just keep this carrying over to the next game.”