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Spurs Playbook: Kawhi Leonard’s game-winner over the Wizards

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Kawhi Leonard hit an unconventional game winner to snap a home losing streak

NBA: Washington Wizards at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It’s starting to sound like a broken record: Kawhi Leonard, Gregg Popovich and the bench save the Spurs. It happened again last night. The Spurs starters played some lethargic, uninspiring basketball, the bench rescued them, and Popovich joined with Leonard for a quasi-gem ATO to salvage a 107-105 victory over the Wizards Friday night.

The Spurs second unit of Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Jonathon Simmons, David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon all had plus minutes to counter a starting unit that got out-rebounded and out-hustled all night.

So for the final play, Pop called on Mills, Ginobili, Green, Leonard and Aldridge ; their three most reliable starters thus far and their two hottest bench players last night. Wednesday in Dallas it was the same unit with Dedmon over Ginobili to close the game. While Gasol and Parker didn’t play Wednesday, a body of evidence is mounting in favor of Mills, Ginobili and Dedmon in crunch time.

Here’s the play (watch the replay on the clip for a better view):

The Spurs start out in a staggered line with Mills inbounding, Kawhi at the top of the arc, Green just inside the three point line, Aldridge at the free throw line, and Ginobili under the basket. The Wizards start in denial coverage, but choose not to switch on the play. With 11 seconds left, they are not anticipating a quick shot and want to make sure they keep their preferred matchups.

As the play starts, Leonard and Green split Aldridge at the free throw line while Ginobili runs straight up the gut towards half court.

Aldridge bumps Bradley Beal, who’s guarding Manu, and he is easily freed to receive the inbounds pass. Notice that Marcin Gortat, Aldridge’s defender, doesn’t switch with Beal. If there were under five seconds left you might see the switch to prevent a wide open Ginobili, but with 11 seconds left the Wizards want to maintain their defense anticipating the Spurs taking one final shot at the buzzer.

After inbounding the ball, Mills drops to the elbow-extended area on the strong side where Green is. They set up a staggered double screen for Leonard. Kawhi, who originally split to the weak side, cuts to the strong side where the Green and Mills are set up to get him open.

As Ginobili scans the court, Aldridge drops to the mid-post, still in the middle of the court on the helpline. Kawhi plants his right foot as if he will use the double screen, then sprints the other way. The fake gets to Otto Porter, who is now trailing Leonard by a step. Porter is also bumped by Aldridge causing him to lose a second step.

Watch this sequence from the 41 to 45 second mark on the clip. Kawhi exaggerates the foot plant to sell the decoy. And while Otto does a nice job avoiding the Aldridge screen, he is forced to take a wider route to recover to Leonard.

Two legs ahead of Porter, Kawhi catches on a one-two hop, plants his inside foot followed by his outside foot, rises, and knocks down the go ahead jumper with six seconds remaining.

Given the situation, the play was likely designed to get the ball to Kawhi and allow him to make a play for the final shot. That part works. But Leonard makes the puzzling call to shoot early, taking advantage of the separation he earned with fundamental footwork and effective off-ball screening and misdirection.

Strategically, it’s not ideal to leave six seconds on the clock; Otto Porter almost forces overtime with a runner that rolls out. You want to take the absolute last shot with the two potential results being a game-winner or overtime. If Kawhi misses, the Wizards get a chance for the win.

But Leonard has earned the green light, and the play works so well that he’s as open as he’ll be. If he holds the ball for a last second attempt, Porter gets to recover and will probably make a much better contest. Pause at the 54 second mark of the clip and you’ll see that while it looks like Porter is right there, he’s coming from the side (thanks to the Aldridge screen) and is late. Porter’s arm doesn’t extend into Kawhi’s line of sight until after the ball is released. Nevertheless, it’s a perplexing decision by Leonard to take the shot with so much time remaining.

Another questionable decision is to take a long two, arguably the worst shot in the game. One more step and Leonard’s shot is a three. Since he shoots early and gives Washington a chance to match, three points would have made the Wizards’ final possession a lot less tense for the Spurs as all Washington could do is force overtime with a three.

But Ginobili’s pass is delivered inside the line, and there’s no way Kawhi can put up a triple without taking a dribble backwards. If the goal was a catch and shoot, as it occurred, Ginobili is smart to pass it as he does, because Leonard is open and Porter would benefit from any additional time to recover. If Ginobili waits any longer, and Leonard takes an additional stride to the three point line, Porter would have been able to make up a step. But Kawhi curls in just as Porter is being pushed out by Aldridge.

For the Spurs, the result works. At 16-4, they could feel a lot worse. But the play is executed imperfectly given the time left in the game. And the recent play of the Spurs, especially the starters, is concerning when you think about matching up against the NBA elite. The good news is that Patty Mills, Dewayne Dedmon, and Ginobili are available if needed late.