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Kawhi Leonard Turned Off The Jazz

Photo: Tim Bradbury (Getty)

Kawhi Leonard buried the Jazz under the most assaultive offensive output of his career on Tuesday, hanging an alarmingly efficient 45 points on 16-of-22 shooting in a 122-116 win. The Raptor-for-now ascended to a higher plane in his 19-point third quarter, sinking every shot he attempted. He did all his damage inside 15 feet, too, and seemed almost eager to tussle with Rudy Gobert in the paint. It was wild.

Leonard is great, but the specifics of his greatness can be hard to parse. His sticky-fingered Devil’s Paw defense leaves an indelible stamp on the brain, but it can be difficult to describe what exactly it is that Kawhi Leonard does on the other side of the floor. It’s effective, of course. Pull-up jumpers are involved. A reliable handle, too. But think of it and see if any of those elements connect and cohere into a whole. If you’re like me, your mind’s eye can readily show you James Harden pitter-pattering into his stepback, Steph letting it sing from the logo, AD yamming a lob pass into the earth’s mantle, KD rising a yard over some sap’s head and calmly carrying out an assassination. But it’s more complicated when it comes to just what the hell is the league’s fifth-best scorer is doing, and how he’s doing it.

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Last night’s career-high offered a bracing reminder of how well this mystery works, but taken altogether the unsatisfying answer when it comes to assessing Leonard’s approach is that he does a whole lot of everything, but nothing that much more or that much better than anything else. The Kawhi Leonard Experience is watching a man stonefacedly pick a spot on the court and then get to it, seemingly indifferent to where those opportunities actually arise. It’s got a whole lot of hesitation dribbles, dizzyingly choreographed sequences of fakes to slink by multiple defenders, sinuous flip shots and floaters, muscular lay-ins off bully-ball drives, some perfect body-control on his various leaners. A signature move is a vanity for which Kawhi transparently cares very little. He will have a little bit of whatever’s on the menu, thanks. Every time I see him operating at peak capacity I am reminded 1) ah okay, that’s how Kawhi plays basketball and 2) holy shit, that guy is strong and real and good.

Last night, as he really got comfortable sinking his teeth into the Jazz defense, Leonard left his mark with reverse layups. First this one, eluding a helpless Gobert:

And then the very next trip down the floor:

Later he’d roast Dante Exum along the baseline:

This laughable, no-glass triumph over Gobert revealed that he was having an uncanny night:

Toronto has been extra-cautious about Kawhi’s health this year, and he’s already sat out nine games of the Raptors 28-11 campaign. But in the games that he has played, there’s been not a single shred of evidence that he has lost anything at all after his (always very opaque) physical issues last year. Leonard is putting up 27/8/3, and, on the eve of his first return to San Antonio, looks like an authentically irrepressible force on both ends of the floor. Even if he is a one-year rental, Canada at least got a good look at the truth.

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