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How a Kawhi Leonard post-up warps an entire defense

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A post up by Kawhi can command so much attention that a defense sees little else.

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Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

With 3:53 remaining in the third quarter of Thursday night's game, as Portland set up their defense trailing the Spurs by just thirteen points (yes, that's reasonably close when playing in San Antonio) the Blazers decided they were not going to let Kawhi Leonard beat them one on one.

The play begins as San Antonio forces a switch with a pick and roll involving Tony Parker and Leonard, which leaves Damian Lillard on an island guarding Leonard. As Leonard posts, the Blazers load the strong side with three defenders and have all five defenders at the elbow or lower. They are so locked onto Leonard that it looks like they are in a high school style box and one or a 1-2-2 zone. This defensive look is an attempt to play the "Thibodeau" man-to-man principles of baiting players to drive baseline into a trap and force a long pass to the weak side. Unfortunately for Portland, they neglected to guard the most important area of all, the basket.

When this play starts, Lillard is guarding Tony Parker and Gerald Henderson is on Kawhi. The Spurs run a 1-3 side pick and roll which Lillard and Henderson switch. Watch closely, and you'll notice the precision with which the pick and roll is executed. As soon as the pick occurs, Leonard seals Lillard, preventing any chance for Lillard and Henderson to fight through the screen. Then, as Lillard anticipates the post up and attempts to jump the pass, Parker makes an excellent lob towards the baseline giving Lillard no chance and putting Kawhi in a prime position. With the smaller Lillard behind Leonard, Portland must change their defensive coverage and load up the strong side help.

Initially, Ed Davis is matched up with David West and poor Chris Kaman is on Tim Duncan (I guess Portland figured it was best to guard old with old). Because of the perfect pass from Parker to Leonard, Kaman is prompted to play in an extremely exaggerated help position, more than halfway between Leonard and his man Duncan. While Leonard's pump fakes allow Lillard to recover, Kaman stays put. In theory, this puts a slower Kaman already in good position if Leonard drives baseline to potentially stop the ball and create a trap.

Since Kaman is in strong side help and leaving Duncan under the rim, Ed Davis wisely rotates down onto Duncan. This forces C.J. McCollum to drop down and cover West at the high post. While he is leaving Ginobili, McCollum is close enough to recover to a cross-court pass. While Gerald Henderson is in help position to assist on a Leonard drive into the middle, he cannot commit fully with Tony Parker keeping him honest on the perimeter.

Leonard avoids Kaman on the baseline by spinning into the middle, fighting past Lillard. McCollum and Henderson make half-hearted attempts to help, but cannot fully commit to leaving Parker, West, and Ginobili. Underrated in all this is West's positioning at the high post, which all but eliminates McCollum's ability to provide any type of serious help on Leonard. Given West's ability to knock down the elbow jumper, McCollum instinctively tries to keep within arms length. Notice how he gets turned around by West and never really recovers.

At this point, the Blazers are in big trouble. They have two options: a) Kaman can step up and leave Ed Davis on Duncan, or b) the quicker and stronger Davis can step up onto Leonard and Kaman can dive back to Duncan to prevent the dump-off pass and layup. And yet, neither of these things happen. Kaman reacts slowly and never even looks back at Duncan as he barrels forward toward Leonard. Davis, likely sensing Kaman's snail pace, ditches Duncan to stop the ball. Ultimately, Leonard commands so much respect and attention that both Kaman and Davis fully commit to Kawhi. This leaves Duncan all alone under the basket, and Kawhi makes the beautiful one-handed wrap-around pass to Tim for the slam.

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Kawhi is playing so well that the Blazers became completely absorbed by his post up, and the Spurs made them pay for falling asleep. More importantly, the Parker/Leonard pick and roll immediately put Portland into a mismatch, which subsequently forced their entire defensive strategy onto Kawhi's island. It won't be this easy Saturday against the Warriors, but the Spurs are locked in.