On Friday night, Kawhi Leonard was center stage.
There wasn't second that went by in the AT&T Center that was not some form of celebration of Kawhi's skills on the basketball court. The ramp up to tip off was consumed with the excitement and anticipation for the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year to be given his statue. This continued on into the game where the DPOY showed he was capable of also being the OPOG, scoring a career-high 32 points in the Spurs' Game 3 shellacking of the Clippers.
For anyone else, you could image them celebrating such an amazing evening -- maybe going out and partaking in the Fiesta festivites, having scores of people over at the house and celebrate, or at least having some close friends and family members over to share a bottle of Merlot. But for Kawhi, I can't help but imagine him walking into an apartment with nothing on the walls except a 14-month calendar where he marks a black "X" on the box labeled "April 24" before getting into bed which is simply a mattress on the floor. The man enjoys the simple things, which making him an anomaly in a league that commercializes flair, style, and swag. Kawhi is giving us a lesson on what trimming the fat off your game can do for a player's career, and it should be reassuring that a nationwide basketball fan base is loving every second of it.
Because the night was all about the Spurs' Kawhi-et Soldier, and since the Spurs completely silenced the Clippers' offense in the second half leaving many bloggers the difficult task of recapping a playoff game that really wasn't, I felt it was important to rehash the exclamation point on the evening that celebrated the NBA's new DPOY: Kawhi's alley-oop. Like many of your pounders, I've gone back and watched the lob from Danny to Leonard about 75 times since it first happened, and around the 37th time was when I began to appreciate the entire chain of events that lead up to the dunk. From Duncan's block that set up the fast break, to 20 seconds after the play where Kawhi finally got to thank Danny properly, every moment was key in order to turn Leonard into a freaking superhero in the 2nd quarter.
Here is a visual recounting of those events:
Duncan was clearly still worn out from his 44-minute effort in Game 2 of the series, which probably explains his 4 total points. That being said, the birthday boy still played hard and affected shots in the paint, tallying 3 blocks.
Blocked shots can easily turn into fast breaks for other team, and that's exactly what happened here. Duncan's block on Matt Barnes in the restricted area was what began the set of events leading to Kawhi's dunk.
As Tony pushes the fast break after the block, notice the spacing that Danny and Kawhi are getting on the court. It's a two-on-two break, but the proper spacing can create more of a one-on-one attack, or even draw both players into one leaving the other man free as a bird. This is a textbook fast break scheme, but the effectiveness shouldn't be understated.
Take a look at Danny Green's court vision as he's catching the outlet from Tony. He's surveying the court, seeing which defenders actually made the trek down to the other end of the court and which of his teammates is pushing along with him. This is the instant where all plans are laid.
To ensure that Reddick does, indeed, close out on him, Danny takes a dribble up to the three point line as if he's going to put up one of his lethal transition threes. That one dribble is enough for J.J. to fully commit to him, leaving Blake -- who doesn't seem to fully get a feel for Kawhi's angle to the basket at this point in time -- to be the player defending the paint.
Watching the play live, it wasn't too clear whether Danny was going to lob it or not until it was actually in the air. For some reason, I didn't think Kawhi was close enough to successfully throw it down. I submit that both Leonard and Griffin were probably thinking the same thing. But Danny lobbed it anyway, and both Blake and Kawhi now have their sights locked in to the floating rock as it heads near the backboard.
These plays are all about angles. Blake is loading up to jump for the lob while standing in the paint, which means he's attempting to somehow deflect this pass using pure vertical leaping abilities. Kawhi, on the other hand, is still on a path to the basket in an effort to catch the ball on its path downward, closer to the rim. This isn't to say that Leonard understands physics more than Blake, just to point out how important court positioning is in events like these.
At this point in the ball's flight, Blake Griffin, Kawhi Leonard, and probably anyone watching this game live, have a quick realization that this lob from Danny is pretty high. In this image, the ball is near the top of the backboard, which is most likely why you can begin to see Blake give up on trying to snatch it in the air. Leonard, though, has made the insane decision that he's going to go get that ball and extends his claws like Wolverine in prepartion.
If you've ever had trouble fully grasping (not proud of that pun) the advantage that Kawhi has because of his enormous hands, take a look at this image. This lob pass should have been out of reach for 99.99% of humanity. Leonard is proving, game in and game out, that he is not one of us, though. This extension is somehow long enough to gain control of the sailing ball as Kawhi is now airborne, heading to the rim.
The ball is controlled by Kawhi's extending fingers and eventually cradled by Kawhi's palm. All the difficulty and risks of an alley-oop are all but gone, at this point. Leonard has full control of the ball and is in the air headed to the rim while his defender is left looking up at a defining moment in this playoff series.
The finish of the dunk is something all players take for granted. Dunks are high percentage shots, but in an effort to be extra aggressive, fly, or flashy, players can screw up this last step. Kawhi Leonard, though, isn't trying to be any of these adjectives in any way. The dunk is securely flushed, finishing off the alley-oop.
This is a Kawhi Leonard celebration. As Blake looks away in defeat and the Spurs bench and AT&T Center is going nuts, Leonard is already looking down to the other end of the court in an effort to get back on defense as fast as possible. Go nuts, Kawhi. It's your night.
This is reason #583 why Kawhi Leonard is Kawhi Leonard. A full 19 seconds have ticked off the clock since he threw the dunk down, but he felt it necessary to wait patiently for the next dead ball to fully thank Danny for the setup that occurred on the play before. There was defense to be played!
There are two things I love about this last scene: 1) Danny goes for the low five while Kawhi goes up high. They played it off well, but this is exactly what happens to me when I'm around an uncle that I haven't seen in a long time. That and the "high five/pound it" confusion where both parties are quickly changing to what the other person had, ending up in a train wreck of hand gestures. 2) If you go back and watch the tape, Kawhi is really trying to get Danny's attention after the whistle is blown. Green has his back turned to him because he's talking to the official at first, so Kawhi is very politely waiting until he turns around to thank him.
The funny thing is that while this dunk got everybody in a frenzy, it was continued scoring throughout the game that was even more impressive. A Defensive Player of the Year that can score, too, is a nightmare for other teams to prepare for. Alley-oops and lobs are always fun to watch, but as the Clippers are showing in this series, a team's players are going to have to be a little more complete than that. Kawhi Leonard is showing what that looks like.