MIAMI – Doc Rivers knows a thing or two about unstoppable forces, both in the individual and team capacity. Throughout his playing and coaching days, he’s all too familiar with how much attention a team has to send toward a lethal scorer.
Decades after playing against Michael Jordan, he now gets to experience the other joyful side of the equation. Similar to Jordan’s composure down the stretch of a game, the world is starting to witness the same form of inevitability with Kawhi Leonard.
Between the shot-creation on all three levels of the court (interior, mid-range, extended), his on-ball defensive pressure, and the sheer confidence in fourth quarters, there are certain moments that approach Jordan-like capabilities for Leonard.
Friday night was added to the collection.
Squaring off with the Miami Heat, who had only tasted defeat once at home this season, Leonard directed another offensive clinic. However, one look at his shooting splits would prevent anyone from calling it a masterpiece. Connecting on just 5-of-13 two-pointers, he struggled cracking the Heat’s interior defense for most of the game.
Instead, he picked apart Erik Spoelstra’s game-plan and had one of the most well-rounded games of his career. The five-point victory in Miami was led by Leonard’s triple-double. With 33 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists, it was actually his first instance of recording a triple-double.
While that’s going to dominate most of the conversation and the length of time it took (nine years) will turn some heads, it was Leonard’s play style and advanced recognition that should be the story.
Spoelstra and the Heat made sure to trap Leonard on nearly all ball-screen action with him trying to gain a switch or turn the corner.
“They were trapping him, and instead of forcing it, he kept taking the traps, moving the ball, and getting the guys open shots,” Rivers said.
It didn’t matter which two players were guarding the initial action – Spoelstra wanted his guys to swarm Leonard. It would force the ball out of hands, and Miami was banking on the Clippers’ injured rotation and lack of playmaking to bite them in the rear.
The reason it didn’t, though, is Leonard’s quick decision making. Not all of the passes directly out of the trap led to quality shots. Sometimes, they led to a secondary ball-handler (notably Landry Shamet) receiving the ball and trying to navigate 4-on-3 situations properly.
When those traps did result in immediate scoring chances, Leonard was timely and precise. One of the most successful ways for the Clippers to flow into their offense is to begin with dribble-handoff set between Leonard and Montrezl Harrell. When Shamet sets the first down screen on Leonard’s man, it allows Harrell to hand it off. From there, the Heat send two defenders lunging at Leonard (his own man and Harrell’s man):
Notice how deadly the left side of the picture is when Leonard picks up his dribble. Poor Duncan Robinson. He’s forced to guard a popping Shamet looking for a three and Harrell moving into the paint. The defense does eventually rotate to the middle, but it’s too late. This spacing and movement give the Clippers terrific options once their best player is bombarded.
Leonard’s computer brain is also processing information faster than his San Antonio and Toronto days. What does that mean in a basketball context?
This is the perfect encapsulation of how quickly he determine the best possible outcome for his team. Heading down the floor in semi-transition, Leonard is using Ivica Zubac as a very effective screen-setter. As the clips slows, watch how Leonard acknowledges that both Bam Adebayo and Derrick Jones Jr. are sticking with him (trapping) on the perimeter.
Instead of taking any unnecessary dribbles or trying to escape, Leonard calmly backs up, squares his body to get power, and throws a dart to the weakside corner:
This type of cross-court feed is becoming more common for Leonard to utilize. The scary part is, for someone that will never be nationally considered a “high-level playmaker,” he’s also starting to fire them with more zip, crisp accuracy, and in the right spot for his shooters.
Without Paul George, the Clippers’ lineups have to somehow muster enough spacing. What makes the possession above work so well is that defenders are in a tough predicament when Zubac is moving inside and there’s Shamet in the right corner with Patrick Patterson in the left corner. Once Mo Harkless’s defender chooses to “tag” the rolling Zubac, Miami has two shooters right open. Leonard reading and reacting to the defensive alignment this swiftly is what renders those shots available. If the defense had a couple extra seconds to move, those shots are evaporate.
“Kawhi said in (the locker room), I’m going to pass you the ball, but the whole key was that you all made the shots,” Rivers said.
By halftime, the Clippers had already erased a 15-point deficit and trimmed it to 65-63. They knew, on the road, the foot couldn’t lift off the accelerator. The same momentum carried into the third quarter, as L.A. outscored Miami 38-20 to build a commanding lead.
By the end of three quarters, Leonard already had his triple-double due to how often Miami dared him to trust his teammates. With every open three from the wing or putback finish by Montrezl Harrell, the crowd slowly lost hope.
“I think we came out and moved the ball well (in the third),” Leonard said. “We limited them to under 25 points. It’s just big that we kept fighting. This is a great team we played tonight. They had us down early in the first and we just kept fighting, and trusted whatever happened.”
He’s spot on about the added ball movement.
One of the only major criticisms of the Clippers’ offense to this point of the season is how infrequently they get the defense in motion. Their standard, or favorite, sets are incredibly efficient plays in their own right. The consecutive pick-and-rolls with Lou Williams dictating and Harrell bringing chaos inside are never going to be negative plays. Leonard or George isolating after switches will continue to be what 20-plus other teams would die to have.
However, there is something to be said about the importance of forcing defenders to move. The more action, or passes, that get your opponent worried, the higher probability they make a mistake. Then, mistakes lead to open shots or dunks.
In Friday’s impressive win, the Clippers passed the ball 291 times. Heading into the game, they were making just 271.4 passes on average. In the first 45 games of the season, they were generating just 60.5 points per game off assists. Against the Heat, it was 81 points coming off 33 assists.
If this is anything indicative of how the offense is going to flow moving forward, the rest of the league better scavenge the market for any additional help they can get defensively.
Leonard’s third quarter was exceptional in many different respects. He played the entire 12 minutes, likely trying to put Miami away before the fourth. In those 12 minutes, he scored 17 points on 2-of-3 from two, 3-of-3 from deep, and 4-of-4 at the foul line. Oh, and he still created many opportunities for his shooters. Out of his four assists in the quarter, there were two for Shamet that could foreshadow the chemistry between them moving forward.
As Leonard reads the floor here after Zubac’s screen attempt, look at the Miami defenders in his vicinity. Butler is on the ball, Adebayo is ready to trap, and Herro has already cheated all the way over to Zubac:
Recognizing the ball will move faster than any human, Leonard looks off Shamet by staring at Zubac. Herro isn’t able to recover to the open wing shooter. It’s the simplest basketball play you will ever see, but it illustrates how he’s able to bait the defense into so many different things.
“He’s a player that impacts the game in so many ways that don’t even show up in the stat book,” Herro said of Leonard after the game. “Everything we did was planned around him.”
Then, midway through the quarter, there was this beauty. After establishing his stance and looking at the weakside, all Leonard has to do is dribble one time. One. After he picks up the ball, he gathers strongly and protects it while driving.
As he’s moving, Harkless is setting one of the best flare screens the Clippers have run all year:
On that possession, Butler’s man to defend was Shamet, the shooter. Take a look at where Butler is standing at the start of the clip. Completely shading Leonard and virtually ignoring his man, Butler allows for this opening. All Harkless had to do was screen his own man, anticipating the switch. It worked.
Going through any film with Leonard as the ball-handler and key decision-maker, it’s clear that defenses (and opposing coaches) aren’t fully giving him credit as a facilitator. On many plays, they are banking on him not being able to read a very basic pass that any superstar could make. Perhaps it’s just the “pick your poison” aspect of the game. If you’re going to live with something, coaches would rather it be the ancillary players knocking down high-pressure shots. Not a reigning Finals MVP, and perhaps the best player alive, scoring every trip down the floor.
Yet, Leonard still finished with 33 points and they couldn’t keep him off the foul line. When the game was hanging in the balance with 1:05 left, he caught the ball after screening for Lou Williams. Noticing the newly-activated Dion Waiters in front of him, he stayed patient.
After a series of jab-steps and making Waiters play the guessing game, he buried the dagger that put L.A. up by eight:
“It was like he was a boxer,” Rivers said. “He just kind of took his time (passing) until he could throw punches.”
Now shooting a career-high 89.3% on free throws this season, while still getting the same number of opportunities as last year, Leonard is honing every part of his offensive craft.
If a defense can’t foul him and feel comfortable, shade him with extra help because of his new passing mode, or contain him in isolation … what is the answer? Is there even one?
For the Clippers, this improved their record to 27-8 in the 35 games Leonard has been active. In the midst of so much outside noise about the team’s chemistry or how things mesh on the floor, that record should hold a ton of meaning.
It’s also the reason the Clippers can take it slow in the regular season and still feel confident. At the end of the day, having the most unguardable player in a playoff series is what stands above everything. Only one team can say that.
The post Kawhi Leonard’s First Career Triple-Double Helps The Clippers Bounce Back appeared first on SuccessDigest.