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How the Spurs' ball movement frees Kawhi Leonard to score

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The Spurs' formula is the same as it's been for years: incredible ball movement, player movement, and execution in the half-court. But now that Kawhi is a featured scorer, you can add one more thing to that list: incredible individual effort.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs have had a reputation for being a great half-court team for as long as Coach Pop has been around and deservedly so. But when coaches and analysts characterize a team as being effective in the half-court, the implication can be that the team plays slow and grinds games out. I think of it as a contrast to the great Steve Nash led Suns teams that played with a run and gun style. Critics of Phoenix would warn optimists that once the Suns got to the playoffs they would not be able to compete with the Spurs when the game slowed down.

While the Spurs are certainly comfortable in the half-court set, the ball movement that the team employs is anything but pedestrian. (For reference, revisit Don't call the Spurs slow just because their pace is low, by Jesus Gomez.)  In fact, the Spurs move the ball so quickly that they force defenses to make split-second decisions and more often than not, a defender makes a mistake, and the Spurs make them pay.

Tuesday night, the Spurs had 25 assists to the Clippers 15 in a 108-87 win and Kawhi Leonard led the way with 20 points on an efficient 9-for-15 from the floor. The team as a whole shot 53.7% from the field, and it was ball movement like we see in the play below that led to easy opportunities:

In this play, David West is about to bully his way to a score over Cole Aldrich while Chris Paul, who is matched up on Tony Parker, recognizes this and doubles West. Parker sees the double team right away and sprints to the corner while Paul is occupied with West. As Parker moves to the corner he signals Patty Mills to slide to the wing.

As West feels the pressure from Paul, he makes the heads-up play to kick it to Parker in the corner, only Parker hasn't made it to the corner yet. He's running with his back to West. This does not matter. West throws the pass to Parker in the corner anyway, trusting that Parker will get his head around to check for a pass, which he does.

There are two extraordinary feats of athleticism that take place in this play, and Parker's is the first. In a single fluid motion Tony does several things at once: he spots the ball as it goes by J.J. Redick's attempt to break up the pass, turns to catch it, plants his feet while receiving the ball, and immediately swings the ball to Mills -- all in a fraction of a second. As if that was the exact reason he'd run to the corner.

The thing is, when Tony made his break to the corner, he had no idea whether West was shooting over Aldrich, or taking a contested shot, or passing to someone else. But once he saw that the ball was nearly to him, he handled it perfectly. You owe it to yourself to watch this part more than once. Put your mouse over the controls while the play runs and click between 1 and 2 seconds so you can see Parker execute this extremely difficult series of motions and decisions as casually as if he was passing the salt shaker at dinner.

While all this is going on, Redick, who was guarding Patty Mills, turns to follow the ball but is quickly out of the play because Parker catches it and sends it to Mills who is moving on the wing behind the three-point line. The ball swinging to Mills forces Jeff Green to rotate over from Leonard to prevent Mills from taking a wide open jumper. Which leaves Leonard all alone at the top of the arc and Mills reverses the ball to him. The Clippers' last hope is Chris Paul rotating out.

Just a year ago, Paul may have given him that shot, but with Leonard shooting 46% from three Paul closes hard. At first, Kawhi looks hesitant. He has several inches on Paul and could probably take a three without worrying about the smaller defender disrupting his shot. He pumps as if to start his shot, making Paul come all the way to him. Then he brings the ball down and moves to his right which brings Paul to a complete stop. But Kawhi's move to his right was a fake, and now Kawhi accelerates past the frozen Paul, takes two lefty dribbles into the middle of the paint and directly toward a confrontation with the Clippers' shot-blocking rim protector, DeAndre Jordan.

Which brings us to the second extraordinary feat of athleticism. Leonard gathers the ball from his second dribble and moves it to his right hand. As Kawhi approaches the defensive circle, Jordan leaves LaMarcus Aldridge, readies himself outside the circle and jumps straight up. Kawhi veers to his right as he leaps off his left foot with the ball in his right hand, raising it up and out, away from his body and the body of Jordan. DeAndre reaches up with his left hand to block the shot, and extends his right elbow to protect himself from the approaching Leonard. Kawhi lifts his left elbow and as the two men's forearms meet each other's chests, Kawhi's forward momentum all but stops. He drifts to his right,rotates to his left, all while still holding the ball up and away from his body, and he guides the ball past Jordan's long left arm and into the net from seven feet away.

It's a testament to his skill that he makes it look as simple as he does. There are only a handful of men on the planet capable of making that play, and of them, he's probably the only one who can keep a straight face after doing it.

What makes this play so effective is how quickly the ball moves, and the anticipation and trust necessary to keep the speed of the ball ahead of the defense. In just two seconds the ball is passed three times. Meaning the ball is in four different spots on the court during this span. And with each pass, the Los Angeles defense is pulled into another shape as a different Clippers defender must rotate off his man to guard the ball (Paul's initial decision to double creates this chain reaction). Eventually, the defensive rotations break down and Kawhi does the rest.