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How Kawhi Leonard wrecked the Cavaliers defense

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Leonard's development has been continual, but the work he did against LeBron James and Cleveland shows how far he's come.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Last time, I wrote about the effect Kawhi Leonard's increased aggressiveness and license to gamble defensively is having on the Spurs offense, especially now that he's more comfortable as a passer in transition. He's even more dangerous now that he can steal the ball and have an option besides barreling into multiple people at the rim.

No one really thinks of Leonard as a passer, and as Charles Barkley related to Bill Simmons on a recent "B.S. Report" podcast, Gregg Popovich and his staff are still developing him in that regard.

"We're talking about Kawhi Leonard, and he says, ‘He's starting to get it now... When he was younger he thought when I called his play, he's supposed to shoot it. He didn't realize like, the team is supposed to score.' Me, knowing what [Popovich] meant, part of being a really good player is making guys around you better. Just because the coach calls your name, doesn't mean the play is for you."

Leonard has steadily improved his assists per game (2.4), assists per-36-minutes (2.7), assists per-100-possessions (3.9) and assist percentage (12.5) every season he's been in the league, according to basketball-reference.com.

Few will remember how well Leonard played against the Cavaliers recently because he missed two free-throws that would've iced the game. (Not to mention how Kyrie Irving went out of his mind with 57 points.) Lost in the shuffle were Leonard's career-high seven assists in that game.

Gregg Popovich has been adamant for some time that Leonard will become a franchise player. Analyzing games like this helps us see what he means. Leonard is figuring out what opponents are doing at both ends. Against the Cavs, he was ready with a counter to whatever they threw at him.

His first assist, early in the game, was a diagonal pass off a double-team which leads to jumper from Danny Green:

Looking at it again (using the Sports VU camera, an awesome tool available on NBA.com's stat index) the topographical view removes some of the clutter, making it easy to see what all ten players are doing at once. (Use the full screen view if you can't see the entire play.)

Stop at 13.1 seconds left on the shot clock. James (23) and Timofey Mozgov (20) are doubling Leonard aggressively in the low post. Kevin Love (0) has Tiago Splitter covered and is in position to disrupt a pass in the opposite post to Tim Duncan, who's also being bothered by a rotating J.R. Smith (5). Irving (2) is in the passing lane to cut off the long pass to Tony Parker. Leonard's only option, which he quickly recognizes, is Green on the opposite wing -- on the other side of all five Cleveland defenders.

Then there's this drive against James early in the second quarter:

Leonard starts with a swing through to clear space, which sets up the no-hesitation drive, a quick pump-fake and then a high-arcing one-handed finish. You can count on one hand the players in the world able to do that against James. Leonard makes it look easy, but it's not easy. The subtle nudge at the end with the left elbow to throw James off-balance is a work of art.

Here's assist number two, shortly after:

This is the Spurs bread-and-butter play, The Hammer. Being able to shoot corner threes is the top priority for all perimeter players in San Antonio, but being able to pass to those corners ranks a close second. Ginobili makes this pass in his sleep while catching a bat, and while Mills has to reach to his left to grab it, he's still centered enough to make the open look.

This play, midway through the second period, shouldn't even count as an assist. Parker does most of the work.

But look at it again with Sports VU and stop it with 8.0 seconds to go:

When Matthew Delladedova (8) comes to double, Leonard has two choices. Duncan is not an option, doubled on the opposite post by Mozgov and Love. Irving has taken Patty Mills away on the opposite wing. Leonard can try a hard jump-pass to Matt Bonner in the opposite corner, but Love has a good shot to intercept that pass. Parker is the best option, and Leonard makes the correct read.

Now, a second bucket on James, with 1:17 to go in the first half:

Leonard has James on skates from the beginning. A moment before the GIF begins, Leonard fakes a back-cut which James bit on even though Mozgov was already waiting for Leonard. LeBron then overcompensated by closing out too hard on the wing. A brush screen by Duncan slowed James just enough for Leonard to get off a shot on the pull up from 12 feet. He still had to get it over the hulking Russian.

Another basket midway through the third quarter:

A hard cut right and a pull-up from 13 feet. Leonard knows the spot on the floor he wants to get to before the catch. The last hash on the edge of the paint is his landmark. James, one of the best man-to-man defenders on the planet, can't stop this because Leonard is so economical. James played it right too, forcing Leonard to the middle where Smith was supposed to help. But Smith, late and in no-man's land, seems surprised that Leonard didn't pass to Ginobili.

Here's Leonard's fourth assist, a pick-and-roll with Duncan halfway through the fourth:

And now the Sports VU look:

If you pause it around 14.3 seconds to go, it appears that Marco Belinelli screwed up the play. The spacing with Parker is terrible. Belinelli is doing the Cavs a favor, letting Irving cover two people at once. But it doesn't matter because Belinelli's man, Iman Shumpert (4) is too late to rotate over to stop Duncan after Tristan Thompson (13) trapped Leonard on the wing. That third man was missing in action all game for Cleveland, leading to easy buckets for Duncan or Splitter.

Assist number five, with 3:05 to go in transition:

Three Cavaliers hustle back, but they all converge on Leonard. David Blatt is Cleveland's best defender on the play. Anytime a guy sinks a three-pointer with a coach yelling at him, it should count for four points. Leonard's pass is a bit to the side, but Green's so open he has time to tie his shoe before shooting.

Assist number six, with 2:00 to go, a simple post entry to Duncan, on his preferred left block:

James doesn't contest the entry pass in any way, even though Duncan has a mismatch on Thompson. It's Pop's "Pounding the Rock" philosophy in action -- there's no way Leonard would've had the freedom to make this play if not for all the little hammer blows he inflicted upon James beforehand. I really thought the Spurs were going to win the game after this hoop.

Finally, assist number seven, in overtime. How'd the game get into overtime? Who cares, let's break down this play.

At first glance, another simple pass, but there freeze the Sports VU at 12.1 seconds and look at what Leonard's seeing:

Both Duncan and Diaw are accounted for. Leonard has two options on his left side, Green on the wing or Parker in the corner. Irving is trailing Green by a fair amount and he's the better option. Leonard sees Irving is too far behind the play to contest Green effectively. Shumpert can get there if he decides to, but then Green has the easy pass to Parker in his favorite spot. If Leonard had skipped a step and tossed it to Parker, Shumpert would've had time to bother him. By the time Parker swung it to Green, Irving Irving would've recovered onto him as well.

Again, the simple play is the correct play, but it's taken Leonard thousands of reps in the film room, in practice and in actual games to be able to slow the snapshots in front of him to where the he makes it all look simple. Watching him progress to this point has been thrilling and I'm excited to see what's next.

(h/t Chris Itz for all the GIFs)