“Soldiers… Don’t give yourselves to the unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts!”
This is an excerpt of Charlie Chaplin’s famous speech in ‘The Great Dictator’, one of the greatest soliloquies in film history. Each time Chaplin reaches this crescendo a surge of adrenaline courses through my veins. Although the words are in reference to one of the darkest periods in human history, its overarching purpose is to remind us of the uniqueness of humankind: the love, compassion, and creativity our species possess allows us to unite and overcome even the tallest of obstacles. Heartwarming stuff!
Well, try telling Jimmy Butler that.
Even Chaplin’s impassioned cry would not be able to rally the Philadelphia 76ers with the opponent they are currently facing. At some point, artificial technology supersedes human intellect. Kawhi Leonard – one part basketball player, twelve parts basketball machine – is the embodiment of this fact. Leonard has been programmed to destroy his opponents and obliges dutifully, taking no enjoyment from the merciless carnage.
On Sunday afternoon Leonard dropped 39 points with a ludicrous shooting display in what may be the greatest win in Raptors’ history. He now also possesses, and apologies to Vince Carter for the recency bias, the two most impressive individual playoff performances in Raptors’ history after his heroics on Sunday and in game one. With no other Raptor finding consistency during the series, Leonard is the beginning, middle, and end of the 76ers woes. The rest of the league should be just as fearful.
Leonard has struggled to disguise himself as human for almost seven years. After dismantling the Grizzlies in the first round of the 2017 Playoffs, then-Memphis coach David Fizdale was almost onto his ruse.
“(Kawhi Leonard) was standing next to me the other night, and he wasn’t breathing. He wasn’t breathing, so I’m gonna check the rule book,” said Fizdale. “I think he bleeds like antifreeze or something”.
Now, the jig is up. This postseason finally confirmed many Reddit conspiracy theories; Leonard is not human. He is averaging 38 points in 40 minutes per game against Philadelphia, with multiple defenders draped upon him at every moment of this grueling battle. He is quite simply a machine that gets buckets more efficiently than any mere mortal. Ever.
Kawhi Leonard is now the most efficient scorer in NBA postseason history.
He entered the playoffs third all-time in postseason true shooting percentage behind Kevin McHale and Cedric Maxwell. pic.twitter.com/nULmuL4bW3
— Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) April 28, 2019
After Sunday’s performance, Leonard has widened his lead atop the annals of scoring efficiency with a 62.77 true shooting percentage. Throughout the playoffs he is shooting at least 10 per cent above the league average on every single spot on the floor. Every single spot.
Sometimes stats can be misleading. Sometimes they are accompanied by a host of caveats that hide the truth. This does not. In fact, it ignores Leonard’s best basketball skill, one that won him NBA Finals MVP, his defensive capabilities. In 2014, LeBron James, the player of our generation, cussed in front of millions upon seeing Kawhi Leonard check into the game and pick him up defensively. That is an ultimate stamp of approval that no statistic can quantify.
— Adam McQueen (@Adam_McQueen) April 29, 2019
Although Leonard is now carrying the largest offensive burden of his career, he still uses his presence on the defensive side of the floor to assert his dominance. Whatever 76er that started to find their scoring rhythm would be stifled only a handful of possessions later as Leonard would switch onto them. Once Butler began to try and steal Leonard’s thunder late in the game with a foray of tough buckets, it was time to re-establish the hierarchy on the food chain:
I don’t care that the play was called a foul. Tony Brothers won’t let us have nice things. The play was the basketball equivalent of a vicious Khalil Mack strip sack on an unsuspecting quarterback. In one fell swoop Leonard had blocked, mugged, and entirely humiliated Butler, restoring the pecking order to close out the game.
The offensive upgrade
Much like the iOS ‘Screen Time’ update that depressingly informs me of my smartphone addiction, Leonard’s opponents are equally deflated when confronted with his upgraded offensive skillset. Nothing that I or Leonard’s defenders do can change the outcome. Double teams? Traps? App locks? The end result remains the same: Leonard scoring a mid-range bucket and me going down a twitter thread rabbit hole arguing that Andrea Bargnani wouldn’t be a bust if he played in the modern NBA. We are both at the mercy of these machines.
(FYI – I also had plenty of Kawhi/Whitewalker references in the chamber, but ***SPOILER ALERT*** it turns out that they weren’t even ruthless enough to finish off a flummoxed Samwell Tarley… that is Golden State 3-1 levels of choking. Kawhi wouldn’t have messed around like that.)
The advancement of Leonard’s offensive game is preposterous. It is hard to fathom that he entered the league as a non-shooter. NBADraft’s college scouting report on Leonard immediately noted that he “does not have one aspect offensively that stands out or which allows him to consistently score the ball,”. I mean, these look pretty consistent to me:
This is not to disparage the scouting report, but to laud a player that has flourished into the best all around basketball player in the world. The shotmaking is unto itself; there simply isn’t another person (other than a lanky Bay area resident with eyes of heading east) that is comfortable with pulling up from every imaginable spot on the court under that level of pressure.
Even more impressive is the rapid improvement of Leonard’s playmaking processing speed. This season (and even this playoffs!) Leonard has occasionally failed to compute double teams and traps in time to find his open teammate before it is too late. Now, playing against the lengthiest team in the league and pressured into the tightest windows imaginable, Leonard is pinpoint in his decision making.
One of a kind
There is beauty behind individual player’s traits that draw fans in. The artfulness of a Kyrie Irving layup, the creative genius of LeBron James’ playmaking, or the the doggedness of Kyle Lowry’s pitbull persona creates a connection between viewer and player. Leonard displays none of these humanic traits. The untrained eye immediately understands that he is a level above the nine others that share the court with him.
I, for one, have become infatuated by Leonard’s automated excellence. The rapid rotation off the ball on his jumpshot, the tightness of his dribble, and every inch of Leonard’s defensive wingspan flapping like windshield wipers in a mid-January snowstorm; each trait is finely tuned. Players strive for perfection and settle upon excellence, Leonard is simply hardwired with absolute precision.
Leonard is on the basketball court to achieve the singular outcome that truly matters: winning. His post-game press conference after game one confirmed this. Despite dropping 45 points with incredulous efficiency, when asked if he wanted to chase his career-high, Leonard simply replied “I was trying to get out of the game… individual stuff is not big for me.” When Russell Westbrook responds in a similar vein to questions like this, it puts me in hysterics. When Kevin Durant claims that he doesn’t notice the outside noise on his individual performances, everyone (including himself) knows it is a lie. When Leonard bluntly states that his individual statistics do not matter to him, I believe what I’m being told. It is the truth.
Leonard’s aloofness has been subject to much ridicule. However, in the ‘look at me’ era in which people increasingly see themselves as an individual brand rather than within the team environment basketball is predicated on, Leonard’s singular focus on the court and reluctance to indulge in the spotlight off of it is refreshing. It allows us, the viewers, to solely craft our opinion of Leonard during the 48 minutes that he spends on the hardwood. And those 48 minutes are nearly always flawless.
We can, and we certainly will, look at the technical and tactical aspects of Leonard’s brilliance. We can analyze the pick-and-roll selections he targeted to generate favourable matchups, the double screens that freed Leonard more space, or the increased DHO actions that got him a head start in certain moves. But for now, we should simply revel in the breathtaking brilliance of the coldest basketball player in the world.
And how do you celebrate hitting arguably the greatest shot in the Toronto Raptors’ 24 year history?
Simply not human.