There’s a single play that best encapsulates Kawhi Leonard’s utter two-way dominance during the first half of yesterday’s game between the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors.
Statistics of the Spurs’ burgeoning star over quarters one and two are eye-opening: 16 points (7-12 FGs, 1-2 3PTs), four rebounds, three assists, and five steals in just under 15 minutes of court-time. But they still don’t exhibit the sense of dread Leonard no doubt instilled on thousands of fans across the Bay Area every time he touched the ball or even defended it.
A simple loss to the surging defending champions isn’t reason to fret for the 63-win ‘Dubs. Too much noise is associated with any regular season game, let alone one played in early April, to glean meaningful conclusions on a playoff matchup that seems increasingly imminent. San Antonio wildly outplayed Golden State from the opening tip on Sunday en route to a 107-92 win, but that decisive macro result isn’t what should have Steve Kerr concerned – it’s the micro all-encompassing superiority of the player who was by far the best on the floor.
For the first time since they fell victim to a statement game by LeBron James in late February, it was apparent just how outmatched the Warriors are physically against basketball’s purest thoroughbreds. Leonard was too fast, too strong, too quick, too skilled, and simply too good to be bothered by Golden State’s second-ranked offense and league-leading defense.
He made nuanced pick-and-roll attacks look easy, feasted in off-dribble or post-up isolations, and was his normal freight train self in transition. He ripped ballhandlers, jumped passing lanes, and made life hell for the blue-clad player unlucky enough to be his defensive assignment on a given possession.
This isn’t new from Leonard, either. He’s been a superstar performer for the better part of the season, yet seems to be peaking at exactly the right time – with the postseason fast approaching and his team hoping to finally, successfully defend their title.
But that Leonard made basketball’s best team since late October seem downright helpless on both ends of the floor is noteworthy nonetheless, and never more evident than on this relatively innocuous second quarter sequence.
You know all about the Klaws by now, and Steph Curry does, too. But Leonard’s ability to seamlessly switch assignments mid-possession and immediately knock the ball from the MVP frontrunner still isn’t the scariest part of this play for Golden State – it’s what happens next.
Holy hell. Watch Leonard sprint for the loose ball. What he does with the rock upon securing it only adds insult to injury. The worst part for the Warriors? You could see it all coming, too.
Golden State’s collective skill, scheme, smarts, and versatility combine to make it a worthy matchup for any team and almost any individual. When the Spurs supplement similar team-wide cohesion with a devastating presence the likes of Leonard, though, what is Kerr’s squad to do? Where does it go? How does it answer?
The Warriors are adaptable. They can throw multiple defenders at James and Chris Paul. They can go big or small with the Houston Rockets and Chicago Bulls. They can run with the Oklahoma City Thunder or slow it down with the Memphis Grizzlies.
But what Golden State can’t do is match San Antonio’s similar commitment to two-way basketball ideals while Leonard wreaks havoc as the unquestioned best player on the court.
There’s no telling that the 23 year-old star will be able to replicate yesterday’s awe-inspiring performance on a consistent basis come the inevitable meeting between the Spurs and Warriors. Kerr will make adjustments in hopes of curbing Leonard’s impact – perhaps making Draymond Green his primary defender, implementing more sets that utilize Curry off the ball, or even starting Andre Iguodala in place of Harrison Barnes.
The possible wrinkles in postseason series are endless, and one game does not consistent performance when the lights are brightest make. Golden State should remain confident against San Antonio, and Curry’s post-game assessment of how his team will react to Leonard guarding him going forward suggests they will.
We can run our same offense and try to look for mismatches that might be somewhere else. He’s a great defender, but if we run our offense, there’s nobody that can really take us out of that… If they try that [again], I think we’ll be pretty successful.
The Warriors should be just as confident in this humbling reality, too: If Leonard plays like he did yesterday come May, they can’t beat the Spurs. The task for Kerr and company will be ensuring he doesn’t when the time comes.
But that’s a prospect perhaps out of Golden State’s hands, instead in the strengthening grasp of the reigning Finals MVP.