SportsPulse: We’re now past the NBA All-Star Game and focus turns to the stretch run. USA TODAY Sports’ Mackenzie Salmon, Jeff Zillgitt and Mark Medina break down what expect heading into the playoffs.
CHICAGO – As he clutched the trophy in his hands, Kawhi Leonard stared at it. He struggled to explain what it meant to win the NBA’s first Kobe Bryant MVP Award in Sunday’s All-Star game. But Leonard told the whole story with his body language.
“Words can’t explain how happy I am for it,” Leonard said after leading Team LeBron to a 157-155 win over Team Giannis on Sunday at United Center. “I’m able to put that trophy in my room, in my trophy room. Just to see Kobe’s name on there, it just means a lot to me. He’s a big inspiration in my life. He did a lot for me.”
Like with many other NBA players, Bryant worked out informally with Leonard and gave him countless strategic tips.
Despite that history, the Clippers forward did not enter Sunday’s game with the intent on winning the All-Star Game MVP award that the league renamed to honor the late Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash at 41 in January. After Leonard made his first two shots, though, he changed his mind, telling himself, “I’m going to try to get it.”
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Leonard boosted his chances by finishing with 30 points while shooting 11-of-18 from the field, and 8-of-14 from 3-point range. That marked Leonard’s first All-Star MVP after winning Finals MVP with San Antonio (2014) and Toronto (2019). Leonard is not considered a favorite to win this year’s regular-season award, though.
Despite averaging 27.2 points on 46.3% shooting, 7.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists, he has missed a combined 13 games this season because of injury maintenance on his left knee. That partly explains why the Clippers (37-18) rank third in the Western Conference behind Denver (38-17) and the Lakers (41-12).
“My mindset is always just to try to make my team the best team at the end of the season,” Leonard said. “If I’m fortunate enou