Beyond his scoring and defense, Kawhi Leonard vexes the Warriors because he’s a one-man tempo killer.
With seven minutes left in the second quarter of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Kawhi Leonard made a play that was worth far more than the points it produced.
Stuck with the ball at the top of the key and the shot clock dwindling under 10, Leonard was staring down the barrel of the Warriors’ stifling help defense. He jabbed left, then juked Kevon Looney with a quick crossover to start a right-handed drive. Sensing that this would happen, genius Warrior defender Draymond Green slid to a position just outside the lane, ready to snare Leonard in a trap.
It worked. Leonard was caught in a vice with his head down, seemingly out of control and unable to see any open passes. They’d done it. The Warriors’ defense had reacted perfectly to Leonard’s decision and were about to reap the rewards with a sure turnover and likely fast break.
Instead, Leonard powered through the trap, held onto the ball, stepped patiently through a tiny opening, and drew contact on Kevon Looney.
On the scoreboard, that sequence ended as a +2 to Toronto. But in an alternate timeline where Leonard turned it over as any other player would’ve, it’d almost certainly end as a -2, and quite possibly a -3 considering the opponent. By simply avoiding a turnover in an impossible situation perfectly executed by his opponent, Leonard almost certainly saved the Raptors a minimum of four points.
More importantly, he also denied the Warriors an essential tool they use to rip off devastating runs like the 18-0 one they pulled in Game 2: control of tempo.
This is what makes Leonard the closest thing to a Warriors Killer that currently exists in the league. It’s not that he’s devastating on both ends of the floor, a rarity even among the best of the best. It’s not simply that Leonard is a great isolation scorer that specializes in making tough shots.
Kawhi Leonard is such a puzzle for Golden State because nobody kills tempo quite like him.
How does Leonard kill tempo?
By playing his game regardless of the scoreboard or the other team’s intentions.
Ironically, Warriors general manager Bob Myers illustrated it best. He wasn’t talking about Leonard specifically during this panel at the Sloan Sports Analytics conference, but he captured Leonard’s essence well.
Bob Myers, again, explaining why Golden State was able to capitalize on the Rockets gameplan in the playoffs because relying on stepback 3s isn’t really a viable game-plan to stop scoring runs when it actually matters. pic.twitter.com/VReUnhJNJX
— Purp Nowitzki (@SubThoughtz) March 11, 2019
“There are certain guys that go down in a possession and go, ‘We’re down 10. We HAVE to get points’. That’s what I think the league might be missing now. Down 10, a step-back 3? OK, I guess. But — and I think [Michael] Jordan was fantastic at this, you knew he was going to get fouled — let’s get to the free-throw line. Let’s cut 10 to 8. Let’s not let 10 get to be 13 or 15. Also, you set your defense. So, I think we get a little loose with the three. Is it bad? No, it’s not bad. But sometimes, in a playoff game, you have to just score.”
Myers’ point is that great offensive players that hunt three-pointers — such as a certain Bearded Houston Rockets star that has fought many playoff battles with the Warriors — may be more efficient in the aggregate, but they also yield higher variance on their misses that the Warriors and other teams exploit. To offer a twist on a basketball analytics chestnut: it actually is more valuable to score 50 percent on twos than 33 percent on threes, despite them providing the same scoring output.
There’s data that backs up Myers’ point. Since 2014-15, the Warriors average nearly 1.2 points per possession off Houston misses with James Harden in the game, according to play-by-play data aggregated by this site. By contrast, prior to these Finals, the Warriors only averaged only 1.04 points per possession off missed shots with Kawhi Leonard on the floor over that same time frame. (This covers mostly Spurs games, as well as the one regular-season game Leonard played against the Warriors this season).
There are infinitely more 33-percent three-point shooters walking around than 50-percent two-point jump shooters, so let’s not apply this lesson too far. But this is what makes Leonard’s specific offensive form of brilliance particularly difficult for the Warriors to handle.
What he lacks in very deep shooting, he makes up for with mid-range proficiency. (Leonard is shooting 49 percent on mid-range jumpers this postseason and nailed just under 46 percent during the regular season). What he lacks in explosive leaping ability around the basket, he more than makes up for with methodical bully ball getting to the hoop. What he lacks in playmaking ability, he more than makes up for with his ball security.
Those qualities become more essential in the playoffs, when defenses work harder to prevent efficient shots, and thus the value of even halfway decent looks is enhanced. It should come as little surprise that Leonard is one of the few (and possibly only) stars who actually raises his game in the postseason.
Leonard’s approach comes with other benefits that also limit the tempo of games. Because he makes the shots most defenses are willing to give up, he doesn’t commit many live-ball turnovers trying to create something better. Because he uses core strength rather than explosive leaping ability to get to his spots, he forces himself to be deliberate, patient, and poised, thereby becoming immune to swarming defenses. Those two qualities further limit the chaotic defense-to-offense transitions in which the Warriors overwhelm opponents.
Game 1 of the Finals was the perfect case study. Leonard’s own production — 5-of-14 from the field for 23 points — was pedestrian, but he effectively controlled the game’s tempo. Even the shots he missed were clanked in such a way that allowed the Raptors to retreat on defense and prepare for the oncoming Warriors storm.
And there were more plays in which his core strength turned a sure live-ball turnover into a Toronto bucket.
All in all, the Warriors scored just 24 points on 25 missed Raptors shots when Leonard was in the game, an 0.96 point per possession rate. By contrast, they scored nearly 1.2 points per possession off missed shots in the regular season and 1.17 in the West playoffs this year. The difference between those marks is larger than the difference between the most- and least-efficient offenses in the league.
How did the Warriors adjust?
In Game 2, Kawhi’s production dramatically improved to 34 points on 20 shots with 14 rebounds, but the Warriors won the game. The reason is because they caused the Raptors to make more compound errors with Leonard on the floor, thereby wrestling the tempo of the game in their favor.
If Leonard has a weakness, it’s that he’s not an instinctual passer, a la Harden or LeBron James. Leonard’s strength is getting to his spot and then making the right pass, whether it’s a direct assist or one that triggers ball movement that eventually results in a quality look. He takes his time deciding the way the possession will be scripted, and once he does, there’s almost nothing a defense can do to regain control.
Throw different help alignments at him before he writes that script, though, and there’s a chance to paralyze his decision-making. Sometimes, Golden State showed a coverage that made it look like they were loading bodies to him, but actually retreated back to their men when he attacked.
Occasionally, Golden State trapped Leonard in ways he hadn’t seen. This was the first time they sent a double team his way before he made a move, and because of that, he didn’t see the open man quickly enough.
The net effect was that Leonard made the decisions the Warriors wanted him to make, which in turn positioned them to actually push the ball back at Toronto in advantageous positions. Take this missed baseline jumper early in the third quarter.
Golden State turned this miss into a wide-open corner three-pointer by showing its defensive alignment in advance, rather than waiting until Leonard got to a spot before swarming to him. Green and Andre Igoudala shifted into the lane in advance to stop Leonard’s pass to Marc Gasol, making him think the baseline fadeaway was the only option.
He defaulted to it before the rest of the Raptors’ floor was balanced, and Golden State took advantage of the ensuing advantage situation to get a wide-open corner 3 on the break.
In this way, the Warriors disrupted the robotic decision-making process that Leonard normally uses to slow the game’s tempo. That created more chaotic situations where Leonard and his teammates were unable to script their transition defense, leading to more of those signature Warriors quick strikes that make them so dangerous. Leonard himself may have put up better numbers in Game 2, but the Warriors made sure his negative possessions were compounded with easy shots and points the other way.
All in all, Golden State produced 35 points on 27 missed Raptors shots with Leonard on the floor in Game 2, a 1.3 point-per-possession rate. That’s 11 more points than they got off misses with Leonard on the floor in Game 1, despite having just two more opportunities. Above all else, this is why the Warriors took Toronto’s home-court advantage.
To get it back, the Raptors don’t necessarily need Leonard to make more positive plays. They just need to limit the Warriors’ ability to create and capitalize on any negative ones.