Connect with us
Kawhi Leonard, Raptors

How Kawhi Leonard has raised his game against the Philadelphia 76ers

It is difficult to think of a player that has put together a more impressive playoff run than Toronto Raptors superstar Kawhi Leonard so far this post-season.

Leonard has elevated his play in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals to perhaps an unprecedented level. He has managed to average a truly sensational 39 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists through four games.

Only four other players can say that they have totaled at least 150 points, 30 rebounds, and 15 assists through the initial four games of a playoff series. The exclusive list of names aside from Leonard includes Michael Jordan, Rick Barry, Wilt Chamberlain, and Elgin Baylor.

Managing to produce a statistical output that hasn’t been done since Jordan in 1993 during the NBA Finals is incredible. It’s even more impressive that the feat wasn’t accomplished by anyone for 26 years prior to Jordan doing it. That makes Leonard and Jordan the only players since the roll out of the three-point line to do it.

The performance that Leonard put together in Game 4 was particularly impressive. The Raptors were facing the possibility of a 3-1 series deficit unless they could come away with a win at Wells Fargo Center in front of hostile Philadelphia fans. Leonard answered the call with 39 points, 14 rebounds, and 5 assists.

Many consider Ben Simmons to be one of the league’s better perimeter defenders and he has the size and athleticism necessary to guard Leonard. He guarded Leonard on 49 possessions in Game 4 and he allowed a highly efficient 32 points and 5 assists. The tone has been set that there is no individual that the 76ers have that can check “The Claw.”

Something that Leonard attributed his recent success to was the fact that he was able to learn from many great players during his time with the San Antonio Spurs. That experience allowed him to see the different approaches that teams use defensively to slow down star players, which has allowed him to stay at least a few steps ahead of Philadelphia.

“Just really growing up learning from great players, I was fortunate enough to be on some good teams early,” Leonard said. “So I was able to see defenses and go on deep playoff runs and I feel that helped me out today.”

The impact that Leonard is providing Toronto has not been limited to when he has the basketball in his hands. He has played a pivotal role in neutralizing Ben Simmons within the half-court and it has been quite effective. He has basically been made afraid of finishing around the basket with other players around him.

While it’s amazing to see what Leonard has been able to accomplish against the 76ers, there is a real concern that the Raptors are relying too much on him. The going is great when he is on the court, but their executions falls off a very steep cliff after he goes tot he sidelines. That is going to have to change for them to maximize their chances of winning this series.

There was an interesting point that FiveThirdEight’s Chris Herring brought up and it’s that Leonard struggled badly when he dealt with being ‘blitzed’ or ‘trapped’ in pick-and-roll situations this season. With a need to slow down the superstar and a lack of instilled fear from his supporting cast, this could be the opposition’s next move in the ongoing game of chess.

“Going one level deeper, Kawhi was the NBA’s least efficient wing player1 this past regular season when opposing defenses either blitzed or trapped him in pick-and-rolls, with the Raptors scoring just 0.46 points per chance in such situations, according to data from Second Spectrum.”

There is a dire need for the 76ers to at least try forcing the ball out of Leonard’s hands. It would force players like Kyle Lowry to have to consistently make plays with strong efficiency or for their supporting cast to be reliable in catch-and-shoot situations. Making someone else lead the Raptors to victory should be a strategy that Philadelphia adopts.

If Philadelphia starts applying additional ball pressure on Leonard and either he continues to dominate or his teammates step up enough, then it’s time to wave the white flag and surrender.