Appreciating Leonard's defense of LeBron James in Game 1
Written by Quixem Ramirez on .
Four San Antonio Spurs scored more points than Kawhi Leonard in Thursday's narrow 92-88 victory over the Miami Heat. Leonard also missed each of his four shots beyond the arc, including three corner 3-pointers that he typically makes 43 percent of the time.
But, even despite a pedestrian offensive showing, the Spurs were six points better than Miami in his 35 minutes -- only Tim Duncan (plus-9), Tony Parker (plus-9) and Gary Neal (plus-7) posted better plus/minuses.
More numbers fun: Miami made 12 of their 23 shots (52.2 percent) in the 13 minutes that Leonard sat. Otherwise, with Leonard hounding LeBron James on the perimeter, they couldn't buy a shot; they were 22-of-55 with Leonard on the floor (40 percent) and made just five of 21 shots from behind the arc (23.8 percent), per NBA.com.
Credit should also be assigned to the cadre of Spurs defenders lined in James' line of vision, too, because impeding James -- whose "off night" consisted of 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists, his 10th playoff triple-double -- takes a concerted effort from the other four defenders. They have to play in concert, mirroring James' every movement while also sticking to their original assignment. Any missteps and James either barrels to the rim unimpeded or Ray Allen is lining up wide-open shots from downtown.
“They did a good job putting two guys on the ball,” James said. “When I got the ball, they kind of shrunk the floor and set a guy at the elbow and dared me to pass the ball. I know my guys will be there to knock those shots down the next game.
“We had some really good looks…it just didn’t go down. They did a good job tonight. I missed some shots. I missed some really good looks.”
Leonard was the first line of defense for most of the night. And the first wave is always the most important; if James gets by Leonard easily, it strains the rest of the Spurs defense to the point of breaking. A broken defense is one Miami, the league's second-best perimeter shooting team in the regular season, will easily exploit.
James rarely had opportunities to exert his physical dominance. He made one of six shots against Leonard, per MySynergySports (hat-tip to San Antonio Express-News' Dan McCarney for the statistical nugget). You could argue that perhaps he passed up too many good shot opportunities just to get his teammates involved, instead of creating his own offense, but that would undermine Leonard's true impact.
One play, covered by Grantland's Zach Lowe, in particular epitomized Leonard's night. With about 6:30 remaining in the fourth period, and the Spurs holding on to their first lead since the first quarter, Chris Bosh set a screen on Leonard. Ray Allen camped in the left corner while Norris Cole stationed himself on the right side of the floor behind the arc. The perimeter challenged Dwyane Wade sat between the 3-point line and the right block, allowing Gary Neal to plant both feet in the lane to deter James' potential assault on the rim.
It was a simple pick-and-roll action, commonplace in the NBA, but it's still effective because James only needs an inch of space to generate a full head of steam. Tim Duncan, guarding Bosh on the play, and Leonard have to be very mindful of their positioning and the other players on the floor. Tougher said than done.
James got a couple steps on Leonard, but Duncan prevented any angle to the rim. Leonard recovered, James found Wade and scampered back to replace Cole on the floor. Wade tried to press a theoretical advantage against the much smaller Neal but Leonard reached in with his long arms to deter his forward progress. Wade wasn't in an advantageous position so he gave the ball back to James, so he could re-establish his post position. Leonard, having just cheated into the paint, hurried quickly to James behind the arc. That's a difficult close out for the average player to make, but Leonard isn't an average defender. He got to James in time, preventing a 3-pointer and a dive to the rim while keeping his arms in the passing lane. James tried to thread the needle anyway and Leonard plucked the ball out of the air. This sequence took just six seconds but Leonard covered significant ground in that time. The turnover led to a Parker lay-up on the other end.
By his own estimation though, the Leonard said he was just "alright."
"I think I did all right," Leonard said. "We won the game, but he had a great game. Had a triple-double. Found his teammates and knocked down shots. I've just got to come out next game a little more focused and try and make it tough on him."
The Spurs limited Miami's top-ranked offense to a mere 102.9 points per 100 possessions in Game 1. There's a good chance the Heat will turn some of their misses into makes, and James will almost assuredly score more points, but Leonard isn't going to just back away from the challenge.
Kawhi is focusing on moving his feet. His extremely long arms don't hurt either. I bet he is studying Bruce Bowen tapes. He has exceptional resolve uncommon even for a lot of veterans in the league. What sets him apart is his humility and is always playing in the moment. He doesn't let any one bad play or great play distract him into ever celebrating or getting too down on himself to effect him adversely for the next play or plays. That's what happens on 10-20 point swings in players minds and actions on both sides of a run during a game. 48 minutes the Spurs way. Go Kawhi and GO SPURS !!!