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NBA Star Power Index: Kawhi Leonard looking like his old self; LeBron James’ record pursuit heats up

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Welcome back to NBA Star Power Index: A weekly gauge of the players getting the most buzz around the league. Inclusion on this list isn’t necessarily a good thing — it simply means you’re capturing the NBA world’s attention. This is also not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order. This column will run every week throughout the regular season. 

Don’t look now, but Kawhi Leonard is averaging 29 points on 59-47-93 shooting splits over his last eight games. He looks every bit like his old self, casually leveraging his way to midrange spots and knocking down 3s while operating in complete control of his pace. 

You remember the guy who was simply too long and strong, too savvy with his last step of separation and too automatic pulling up? Yeah, he’s back, and the Clippers are reportedly in the market for a starting point guard, with Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer indicating Fred VanVleet, Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry as targets. You add that kind of player to the Leonard-George duo and the Clippers are going to be a major problem. 

The King is on Kareem’s heels, now just 178 points away from becoming the NBA’s all-time leader scorer after putting 46 on the Clippers on Tuesday. Remarkably, the Clippers were the only team against which LeBron James had never had a 40-point game. Now all 30 teams have worn a LeBron 40-ball. 

James hit a career-high nine 3-pointers en route to his 46, though it came in a lopsided loss.

James is averaging 36 points over his last six games. If he keeps up that pace, the record could fall on this upcoming Lakers road trip. At the pace of his 30.2 average for the season, the record would fall Feb. 4 at New Orleans. 

For the first time in his career, Kyrie Irving has registered at least 30 points, five rebounds and five assists in three straight games. He leads the league in fourth-quarter scoring. He scored 21 points in consecutive fourth quarter against the Suns and Jazz, the latter of which he hit for a season-high 48 in total. 

He was brilliant down the stretch again in Brooklyn’s victory over Golden State on Sunday, their second straight after an 0-4 start to this stint without Kevin Durant. But it wasn’t Irving’s offense that stood out to me. It was his defense on Stephen Curry

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Here are a couple examples, starting with Irving putting on a defensive-slide clinic to force the ball out of Curry’s hands late in the shot clock, leaving Klay Thompson to try to create something out of nothing. 

At the end of the third quarter, Irving, who applied heavy ball pressure all night, didn’t allow Curry an inch of separation in isolation, forcing him into a side-shimmy prayer that had no chance. 

Late in the fourth quarter, Irving was again on an island against Curry with no help to the baseline. He slid his feet again, cutting Curry off and forcing him into an arhythmic travel. 

Great stuff from Irving, who has been spectacular on the floor for Brooklyn.

We work in a headline business, and triple-doubles make good, or at least easy, headlines. I’m as guilty as anyone. But in reality, shouldn’t we stop highlighting every triple-double for a guy that is … check notes … basically averaging one? This is more or less a nightly thing, give or take an assist or rebound or two. It’s like reporting that Stephen Curry made four or five 3-pointers. 

What I really want to highlight is something I stumbled upon the other day, which has been bowing my mind since. Nikola Jokic has shot under 50 percent in just one game this season (a 3-for-10 showing against the Jazz on Oct. 28). Did you know this? I sure didn’t. It is true, though. Look it up. The man has shot at least 50 percent from the field in 36 straight games and 41 of 42 to start the season.

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Over his last two MVP campaigns, the longest such stretch of 50-percent shooting games Jokic accrued was nine. Nine! And those were incredible seasons. The dude is at 36 and counting as he continues what would be, at present pace, the most efficient shooting season in NBA history. 

Oh, he also hit what proved to be the game-winning bucket for the Nuggets against the Pelicans on Tuesday. 


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