Leonard has Popovich purring

San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard has the ball knocked loose from his grip by the Memphis Grizzlies' Vince Carter. The Spurs forward led all scorers with 29 points as San Antonio put Memphis to rest 103-96, setting up a Conference semi-final showdown
San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard has the ball knocked loose from his grip by the Memphis Grizzlies' Vince Carter. The Spurs forward led all scorers with 29 points as San Antonio put Memphis to rest 103-96, setting up a Conference semi-final showdown with the Houston Rockets next week.PHOTO: REUTERS

Spurs coach hails star forward after his displays in 4-2 series win over Memphis

MEMPHIS (Tennessee) • San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich hailed Kawhi Leonard as the best player in the National Basketball Association (NBA) following the forward's 29-point performance in their 103-96 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday.

Victory in Game Six of the Western Conference play-off first-round series saw the Spurs advance 4-2. They next face the Houston Rockets, with that series beginning on Monday in San Antonio.

Leonard averaged 31 points in the series. He had three games of 30 or more points, including a 43-point effort in a Game Four overtime loss in Memphis.

"Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now," Popovich said.

"He's the best two-way player and does it all with such class. It's impressive."

Leonard scored eight consecutive points midway through the fourth quarter after the Grizzlies took an 85-79 lead at FedExForum.

"He is exceptional," Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said.

"I just don't know many possessions he takes off because he plays both ends of the floor so well. His conditioning is like nothing I've ever seen.

"The guy, he just keeps coming and keeps coming and he finds a way to make a play, a winning play."

Leonard deflected the praise.

"I'm not trying to be the best player, I'm trying to be (part) of the best team," said the 25-year-old.

Tony Parker added 27 points after shooting 78.6 per cent from the field (11-of-14) - the best the veteran guard has ever shot in a postseason game. LaMarcus Aldridge had 17 points and 12 rebounds as the Spurs won for the first time at Memphis this season.

Popovich said Memphis were a good test and now his team are better prepared to go on a long post-season run.

"One thing I do like is Memphis are a heck of a defensive team and they play rock 'em, sock 'em. That gets you ready for anybody you are going to play," he said.

The Grizzlies got 26 points from Mike Conley and 18 from Marc Gasol. Zach Randolph finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds.

The Spurs survived a strong challenge from the Grizzlies by dominating the boards 46-28.

Leonard, who finished a rebound shy of a double-double, said the Spurs had to be disciplined to outrebound a physical Memphis team.

In Milwaukee, the Toronto Raptors used a 9-0 surge late in the fourth quarter to win their first-round Eastern Conference series, eliminating the Bucks in six games.

Toronto, who led by as many as 25 in the third quarter, advance to face the second-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers, a rematch of last season's East finals.

DeMar DeRozan led the way for the Raptors with 32 points. Kyle Lowry added 13 points.

Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 34 points and grabbed nine rebounds in 47 minutes, but made just seven of 13 attempts from the free-throw line. The Bucks made only 18 of their 28 foul shots.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2017, with the headline 'Leonard has Popovich purring'. Print Edition | Subscribe