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Kawhi Leonard’s sustainable simplicity

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, pondered Leonardo da Vinci. Kawhi Leonard applied that to basketball. Much has been written about Leonard’s Game 1 and this space will not bother colouring the narratives with richer tones. That is the domain of professionals. I prefer to view Leonard’s game from the perspective of the beer league baller because it is from that lens that I can truly appreciate his brilliance. Specifically, I’d like to focus on a couple simple aspects of his game that I believe can be applied to anyone playing basketball.

First, he doesn’t waste time. You may have noticed that he’ll maximize the shot clock by grabbing the rebound and dribbling the ball in the same motion. Most players corral the rebound, look around for the defense and then decide what to do. Leonard’s preference when collecting rebounds, especially uncontested ones, is that he grabs the ball with one hand and in that motion starts the dribble up the court. This has the effect of putting the defense on its heels rather than giving them a moment to rest and gather. He did this several times in Game 1 and every time it made Philly think more than they thought they needed to.

Second, he knows what he wants out of the possession and limits his probing. For example, if he senses that the defense has been going under screens, he’ll seek out a mid-range face-up jumper with precision. He knows exactly how much space he needs to get his shot off and will not execute moves that don’t meet the goal of creating the required space. He will especially avoid over-dribbling because that results in the defense becoming more set. An 18-footer is an 18-footer for him and if he has a clear sight to the rim, it’s good to go. The same is true for his turn-around jumper. If Leonard sees a height advantage he has no qualms about shooting over the guy as soon as possible. In this respect he’s very similar to Kevin Durant in those elbow/mid-post areas. Both obviously rely on a height advantage, but whereas Durant relies on a high release point to ensure his shot isn’t blocked, Leonard relies on strength to create separation.

Third, he’s patient in the block. When he gets in the paint via a drive or post-up he will play cat-and-mouse to try and get the defender off their feet. Or else he’ll pass. Most of the time he’ll either get a high-percentage look or get fouled. This is largely because he knows that it’s the defense that’s in a vulnerable position, not him. This patience affords him options. This is very much unlike DeMar DeRozan where you often felt that the defense was content with him trying to force up a shot in those tight quarters. Leonard’s reputation is such that the referees know that he’s not looking to get fouled so will give him the call when time comes.

There isn’t a wasted movement or an unnecessary maneuver in Leonard’s game. The simplicity of the approach is what makes it sustainable. Let this post not be entirely dedicated to gushing over Leonard, but dear reader, allow me one more thought on the topic.

In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. I’ve always found this prevailing theory in the LeBron-less East to be slightly disrespectful but I can see why it exists. It is unfortunate that we’ll never get to witness how a Kawhi-led Toronto would have fared against Cavalier versions of yesteryear, especially the weakened ones. Maybe games one and three from last year might have different conclusions. Maybe. We’ll only know once the Raptors face the Lakers in The Finals next year.

Game 1 did go as expected for the most part. Joel Embiid is their primary threat and Marc Gasol seems to have a strong handle on Embiid, who appears at times either tired or disinterested, or both. Perhaps it’s the injury which he sure does love talking about, or perhaps he’s already resigned to losing and is just making it known that he’s not 100% so there’s a documented excuse. I acknowledge that it’s a cynical view but that is a reasonable interpretation of some of his body language and interactions with his teammates.

Watching Jimmy Butler not destroy the Raptors was also something new. We’ve come to accept him dropping 40 on us as a constant so it’s great to see Danny Green, Kyle Lowry and Leonard take turns on clamping him down to where he’s not getting to the rim or pulling up for open jumpers at will. Butler will always be a danger man and will probably have a say in this series, yet it doesn’t scare you like it did in the past. This is probably because the Raptors are far more comfortable in switching 1 through 4 than they have ever been.

The one guy that does concern me only because of his streakiness is JJ Redick. Him parading around with a little cut pretending like someone attacked him with a machete was annoying to be sure, and I don’t like him at all (to be clear, I hate most players not playing for the Raptors). However, he can be dangerous because he does something very well: he’s able to both peel off a screen underneath and come outside for a three, and he’s able to go east-west off a screen and hit it while his body his moving sideways. The latter is something not everyone can do and if he heats up in a stretch where Philly is up 5, he can easily make it 15. It’s odd to write a whole paragraph about Redick but I feel he’s a pesky little punk.

I called this series in four and I’m going to stick with it, simply because I feel the Raptors are a much better team and they have answers for everything Philly can throw at them. Even Ben Simmons, as good as he is, doesn’t have a sustained advantage over anyone. The bench is obviously a weakness for the Raptors and Nick Nurse sees that clearly, as evidenced by him bringing in Leonard with 10:05 left in the fourth (albeit after a lengthy stoppage of play). It doesn’t appear Nurse trusts Fred Van Vleet and Norman Powell to be out there without at least two of Siakam, Leonard and Lowry, which is probably very fair. You could see this series being extended a little so the Raptors get an extra home gate and the associated millions of dollars, but I could never figure out if that’s an actual organizational strategy. Seems a tad bit risky but the payoff is huge.

I’m quite split on whether I want Marc Gasol shooting the ball. He clearly prefers not to as seen by him passing several open looks. I almost feel like he’s yelling “I’m sorry” as he shoots. Yet at the same time the guy shot 36% from three in the regular season and is shooting 53% from there in the playoffs. Then I try to think about what Philly would prefer and it’s then I can convince myself that him shooting isn’t a great idea. If you’re Philly you want Gasol taking as many outside shots as possible because it means Embiid doesn’t have to bang near the boards and guys like Leonard, Lowry and Siakam aren’t scoring.

Let’s go Raptors.

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