LOS ANGELES — Kawhi Leonard got here off a choose and roll and delivered a bounce cross to a diving Ivica Zubac for what seemed to be an open runner.
The LA Clippers obtained a ghoulish dose of trick or deal with, although, as Zubac’s shot bounced thrice earlier than softly resting on the again of the rim. Leonard, who watched an help vanish — or, extra actually, get caught — might solely smile and chuckle.
Coming into this Halloween sport towards the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard was averaging a career-high 7.5 assists — a terrifying prospect for opponents. And though most of his harm was from scoring on Thursday, torching San Antonio for a season-high 38 factors (on a career-high 32 subject objective makes an attempt) to go together with 12 rebounds and a season-low one help in a 103-97 Clippers win, Leonard has turned heads along with his playmaking this season.
“He is grown in that space a lot as a playmaker,” Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego mentioned, who labored with Leonard as an assistant coach in San Antonio from 2015-18, together with his first two All-Star seasons. “Coming in, he was at all times a keen teammate, a keen passer. However the sport has slowed down for him a lot… He is drawing extra coverages than ever proper now however he is making an attempt to play the suitable method, shifting the ball, [and he] didn’t have that early on his profession… now he is shifting the ball higher than ever.”
“No person noticed this coming in Kawhi Leonard.”
Coming into his ninth season, Leonard’s career-high in assists per sport was the three.5 he averaged throughout the 2016-17 season. However within the first 4 video games with the Clippers, Leonard dished 5 or extra, typically creating straightforward buckets for his huge males with pick-and-roll bounce passes.
“I believe it is humorous, the narrative on the market was that he can rating and do loads of issues. However they did not find out about his playmaking,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers mentioned after Leonard’s 9 assists within the Clippers’ win at Golden State. “Over the [first few] video games, he has just about answered these questions.”
After Leonard had six assists in his Clippers preseason debut, Zubac marveled at Leonard’s passing and the way vast open he was on a number of choose and rolls.
“I [don’t] suppose he confirmed us what he obtained in follow,” Zubac mentioned, the beneficiary of a number of Leonard assists towards the Warriors (16 factors and 10 rebounds) after barely with the ability to keep on the ground final postseason.
Leonard attributes his uptick in assists and playmaking to the present circumstances of the Clippers’ roster. The Clippers haven’t got a real level guard in Rivers’ rotation. And till Paul George returns, Leonard has taken on the duty of dealing with the ball, probing contained in the 3-point line and seeing what defenses will give him.
“The final two groups I performed on, was a dominant level guard with Tony Parker and Kyle [Lowry],” Leonard mentioned after a win over the Hornets. “They did a lot of our playmaking. I really feel like I’ve to step up in that function proper now and get our gamers open pictures.”
Because of this, Leonard has torqued opposing defenses in uncomfortable methods. He can get to his mid-range spots along with his dimension and energy, rating off stepbacks or pictures within the paint like when he hit seven straight pictures throughout a torrid stretch within the first half of the season opener towards the Lakers. Within the Clippers’ very subsequent sport, Steve Kerr tried to take the ball out of Leonard’s palms earlier than he might get to his spots. However Leonard beat the double groups by discovering open teammates off pick-and-rolls earlier than ending with 21 factors and 9 assists in 21 minutes.
“You bought two Finals MVPs with two totally different groups — your boy can do all the things,” Clippers guard Patrick Beverley mentioned the win over the Warriors. “They do not simply give these awards to individuals who cannot play. He is confirmed it. After all he is been put in loads of positions the place you need to make loads of buckets. Because of the quantity of shooters we have now, the massive guys that roll, our dynamic of the crew goes to make his job lots simpler.”
“Groups put a lot consideration on Kawhi on choose and rolls. Zu is there to get all of the free change.”
The Spurs clearly know Leonard higher than anybody else and appeared content material with letting their former star take pictures via the primary three quarters. After a tough first half that noticed Leonard make solely 5-of-16 pictures, Leonard continued attacking and had 25 second-half factors on 10-of-16 from the sphere.
“Tonight he confirmed his genes,” Lou Williams mentioned. “He simply actually put us on his again and made play after play, particularly within the fourth quarter. After I could not get going, no one else might make pictures, he actually carried us and made performs for us.”
“It regarded like he was fairly incentivized,” Williams added of Leonard going through his former crew. “It rattling positive felt prefer it.”
When the Spurs did ship a double crew late, Leonard made the suitable play like when he hit an open Beverley on the wing earlier than the guard discovered Montrezl Harrell open beneath for a basket and the foul that gave the Clippers a 101-95 lead with 1:27 remaining.
The assists might have been there too had the Clippers shot higher; LA missed 10-of-11 pictures off of Leonard’s passes Thursday night time, together with 0-for-6 from 3.
“They did not assist off as a lot as the opposite groups did,” Rivers mentioned of San Antonio’s defensive method to Leonard. “I am positive they watched movie and mentioned, ‘In case you entice him, he will kill you.’ He is simply so huge he can see over all the things.”
When Leonard was drafted 15th total out of San Diego State in 2011, the Spurs noticed the energy, athleticism and, in fact, large palms. However additionally they noticed a participant who wanted growth along with his shot and passing.
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Gregg Popovich did not simply say form phrases earlier than the sport about how a lot Leonard has developed however spoke at size concerning the ahead, whose much-publicized divorce with San Antonio led to a commerce with Toronto.
“Once we made that commerce and drafted for him, we did not know he was going to be Kawhi Leonard,” Popovich mentioned. “Identical to we did not know Manu [Ginobili] was going to be Manu once we drafted him. Individuals who inform you which are filled with crap. You by no means know the way a participant goes to develop whether or not he’s drafted fourth or 19th. You simply do not know.
“However from the get go, Kawhi had a piece ethic that was exemplary,” Popovich continued. “… the very first thing we did was speak to him about protection. From day one, I hit him. I mentioned, ‘It’s essential be an all-league defender. That is your first objective. The offense will come’… it was apparent that he could possibly be an important defender… however, absolutely, yr after yr after yr, he obtained higher and higher on the offensive finish.”
George is anticipated to return from offseason surgical procedures on his shoulders in mid-November. However Rivers has favored what he has seen from Leonard the playmaker a lot that he may maintain the ball in his palms when the 2 stars lastly take the ground collectively.
“Kawhi’s been straightforward to combine,” Rivers mentioned. “You simply give him the ball. I am no idiot. However the spacing, what we have discovered about Kawhi is how nicely he sees the ground and the kind of passer that he’s.
“That is going to make us lots higher and you understand now that you should utilize Kawhi because the passer to PG which ought to be fairly deadly.”