Did the Toronto Raptors Provide a Blueprint for Stopping Kawhi Leonard?
Last summer, Kawhi Leonard helped the Toronto Raptors win a historic NBA title. Last night, however, things were different. Leonard wore the red, white, and blue uniforms of the Los Angles Clippers, and he was guarded by his former teammates. While the forward was clearly happy to see his old friends, he didn’t have a good time on the court, struggling through the evening.
Kawhi Leonard’s development into a dominant scorer
After a strong high school career, Kawhi Leonard played his college ball at San Diego State. During his two years with the Aztecs, the forward used his size and speed to pose an all-around threat; he averaged 14.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per game in NCAA action.
The Indiana Pacers picked Leonard in the first round of the 2011 NBA draft but promptly traded him to the San Antonio Spurs. He found a niche with the club, primarily playing lockdown defense and spreading the floor, but head coach Gregg Popovich saw potential in the young player.
The forward continued to develop, winning NBA Finals MVP in 2014 and taking home Defensive Player of the Year honors in the next season. Every season, he looked more and more at home on the offensive end of the floor; he became more aggressive and became more than just an outside shooter.
By the time he arrived in Toronto, Leonard was a threat from anywhere on the floor and capable of creating his own offense. He averaged 26.6 points per game in 2018, helping the Raptors win their first NBA championship, and then headed home to join the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Raptors defensive gameplan
Last night, Kawhi Leonard was happy to see his only teammates. Those positive vibes ended once they stepped on the court, however.
Toronto swarmed the forward every time he touched the ball, frequently trapping him near the midcourt line and double-teaming on pick-and-rolls. The Raptors had a clear plan: force the ball out of Leonard’s hands and make him pass through traffic to his teammates.
Their plan almost succeeded, as Leonard posted one of his worst offensive games in recent memory. The forward went 2-11 from the floor, with most of his points coming from the free-throw line. While he played provider, assisting on nine baskets, he also turned the ball over nine times.
Can you really stop Kawhi Leonard?
While the Raptors may have stifled Kawhi Leonard’s offensive output, the forward was still able to stamp his mark on the game. His assists and free-throws helped keep the Clippers chugging along; Toronto may have quieted Leonard, but he set his teammates up for success.
“[Toronto made] me better tonight,” Leonard explained. “As soon as I walked across half court, they were trying to get the ball out of my hands, sending an extra defender. It’s going to [make] my teammates better. [Opponents are] going to do it at times in the playoffs and regular season, and they are going to knock down the open shot. That’s what wins games: open shots.”
The Raptors, like last season’s Golden State Warriors, defended Leonard by throwing different looks at him and forcing him to distribute rather than score. While it makes sense and worked last night to some degree, it’s also picking your poison. Kawhi is simply too good to be completely marked out of a game; he’ll find open teammates, and it’s up to those players to hit their shots.
Last night, the Toronto Raptors showed that you could slow down Kawhi Leonard. But, the forward responded and proved he’s a good enough all-around player to still get the win.