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 enough to win a regular-season MVP, then I’ll be happy with it. I always just want to win championships. I’m not really concerned with the personal goal. So I always just want to play on an MVP level so my team can win.”
Leonard helped his team win in a game that must have left Lakers fans feeling intrigued. After rejecting the Lakers’ inquiries to team up with LeBron James and Anthony Davis as a free agent, the three stars aligned together Sunday. And they all played for Lakers coach Frank Vogel.
“I didn’t really go there mentally, to be honest,” Vogel said. “It was an All-Star game. It’s an exhibition. I had fun with that aspect of it, but I love my Lakers team.”
Either way, Leonard contended he benefited from that dynamic. He credited Vogel’s early play calls that set him up for shots. He also praised James’ playmaking. While James had 23 points and six assists, Davis added 20 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. Davis also split a pair of free throws to win the game, which was decided by which team reached 157 points first — determined by the leading team’s total after three quarters plus 24 (a tribute to one of Bryant’s jersey numbers).
“It’s always fun just to get around guys that are very competitive and see what they do on an every-day basis,” Leonard said. “Just talking, just being their teammate. We go at each other all year round. It’s great to be able to pick their brain and just be around them and joke and laugh.”
That contrasted to the pain Leonard felt following Bryant’s death. But on Sunday, Leonard became joyful after clutching the new trophy named after Bryant.
“I want to go in and win every game,” Leonard said. “Whatever happens from there, I would dedicate anything to him.”