Kawhi Leonard is no longer the defensive marauder he once was, maybe because he’s been saddled with Jordanesque duties on the other side of the ball. The Raptors’ sludgy tar-pit offense leaves Leonard no possession to catch his breath. Almost every trip down the floor, he’s relied upon to create something. Even in the regular season, Leonard’s defense didn’t meet the lofty statistical marks of past years—which isn’t an indictment of his progress as a player, as he apparently downloads new skill packages every summer. It is surreal to pan out and recognize that 2015's all-consuming defensive cephalopod now stands among 2019's top postseason shot creators. Who envisioned that guy draining tricky mid-range jumpers off the dribble, the ball rotating so fast as to blur the seams? With the exception of playmaking, Kawhi Leonard has hit the highest benchmarks of every NBA skill.
Even though the notion of Kawhi as a pure defensive specialist is a faint memory and his duties have shifted considerably, the actual capacity is still there. The lockdown talent that first built Leonard’s reputation can still emerge when called on, and “Giannis Antetokounmpo up 2-0 in the series“ is about as terrifying a call as any NBA team will ever hear. Thanks in part to Leonard’s individual coverage, Antetokounmpo had 12 points on 5-of-16 from the floor, his worst scoring night across these 12 playoff games. The Bucks star then fouled out with four minutes left in the second overtime, which gave the Raptors just enough room to eke out a 118-112 win.
As FiveThirtyEight’s Chris Herring noted, Giannis’s 1-of-9 shooting when primarily guarded by Leonard was his worst performance against any one defender over the last three postseasons. Giannis can typically rely on his speed, strength, and footwork to power through or past the nominal defender. There is no ideal “matchup” for him—and that will become a purely rhetorical concept if he ever polishes his jumper—but Leonard comes close, with his synthesis of raw strength, active hands, and mobile feet. He can match him step-for-step on the drive, then somehow absorb the concussive impact of a lowered Giannis shoulder while keeping both his hands straight up.
Against a force like Giannis, sometimes it’s just a matter of buying enough time for Toronto’s excellent help defense to come join in the effort.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of possessing a mystifyingly huge and strong hand that can keep a leaping Giannis’s shot pinned below eye level, earning a jump ball.
If this was a universe where Leonard didn’t also have to jack up 25 shots on the other end of the floor, this series might yet have some juice. The Raptors couldn’t muster 40 percent shooting from the floor in Game 3. It wasn’t as much of a one-man show as some previous Raptors outings this spring. Pascal Siakam put 25 points on the board, even if he couldn’t ice the two free throws at the end of regulation that would’ve saved Kawhi another 10 minutes of toil. A smooth Norm Powell added an efficient 19 before fouling out. Marc Gasol contributed 15 courtesy of some much needed confidence from deep. But when Danny Green, Fred VanVleet, and Serge Ibaka combine for 4-of-25 from the field, someone else will have to pick up the slack. In Toronto there is no question as to who that someone will be.
Locking down the probable MVP on one end of the floor, flirting with 40 on the other—it’s difficult to conceive of a more taxing workload in this league. Leonard logged 52 minutes and winced after landing his dunks and layups late in the game. He was limping on the side opposite his long-term quad injury. If this banged-up and depleted Kawhi Leonard can conjure up three more wins, he’d lay claim to one of the truly Herculean individual postseason performances in recent history. As recent history also confirms, there’s no penalty for getting smashed by the Warriors once you get there.