A year later, Spurs facing more versatile James

Before the San Antonio Spurs’ Game 2 loss to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals Sunday, I had asked Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard about his mindset, when playing in foul trouble, especially, against Heat forward LeBron James.

“I just try to go out there and play the same game,” said Leonard on Saturday before Game 2. “If I’m not aggressive, then it stops my rhythm and my team needs me out there to be aggressive, not to just wander around the floor.”

After logging just 23:33 minutes in Game 1 due to a minutes restriction with his three fouls in Game 1, Leonard was able to play nearly 17 minutes in the first half of Game 2, as he only drew one foul when on the floor. The second half was a bit more of a different story for Leonard in Game 2, as he logged 14:32 minutes, and picked up five fouls in the second half, to foul out of the game, with 0:47 seconds remaining.

In observing Leonard’s fouls individually through each game, we must first research the changes James has made in his game individually this season, as opposed to last. The chart below is comprised of James’ scoring possessions over the last two seasons via the Synergy Sports database.

Scoring Possession Type 2012-2013 (% of Time) – Total Scoring Possession Type 2013-2014 (% of Time) – Total
Isolation (23.7%) – 567 Isolation (20.8%) – 473
Transition (17.1%) – 409 Transition (20.2%) – 458
Pick-&-Roll Ball Handler (17%) – 406 Pick-&-Roll Ball Handler (15.8%) – 359
Post-Up (12.9%) – 308 Post-Up (14%) – 318
Spot-Up (8.2%) – 196 Spot-Up (8.2%) – 186

The data taken is from the first game of the season to the last of the playoffs, for respectable each year. So, since James is only about to play Game 3 through possibly 7, his data will change slightly over the next two weeks. However, with the sample available, you can see how he has relied less and less on areas where teams can force him to take outside jump shots, like isolation and pick-and-roll ball handler possessions, and James is using possessions like the transition and post-up more often this season, to use his advantage with his size, speed, and quickness, to either score, create opportunities for his teammates, or draw fouls.

Back to Leonard, let’s now examine each of his fouls in detail over the first two games. His first foul in Game 1 came at the 9:22 mark in the first quarter, which he drew a foul while setting a screen on Mario Chalmers. These are the types of fouls Leonard has to try to avoid, as he must save his fouls for the defensive end when defending James, if they are needed then.

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His second foul in Game 1 came at the 2:33 mark in the first quarter, as James was getting ready to post him up, so that it would force Leonard’s teammates away from the play.

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When James faced up Leonard in his post stance, Leonard swiped at the ball and got called for the defensive foul. Immediately after, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich pulled Leonard out, while James finished the remainder of the quarter.

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Leonard’s third foul in Game 1 came at the 9:44 mark in the third quarter, as James once again got into his post position.

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James attacked Leonard by trying to go to the rim strongly, and Leonard was called for the foul. After the whistle, Popovich once again pulled Leonard, and Leonard wouldn’t return until the 3:53 mark in the third quarter.

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As mentioned above, Leonard only drew one foul in the first half of Game 2, at the 9:58 mark in the first quarter, as James was in post position.

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James tried to drive on Leonard, and Leonard was called for the foul.

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In the second half, Leonard was called for his second foul of the game at the 8:21 mark in the third quarter. James was once more in post position, and Leonard fouled James trying to catch the entry pass.

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Then, at the 7:23 mark in the third quarter, Leonard was called for an offensive foul, as he was caught charging into the paint on a drive.

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At the 4:13 mark in the third quarter, Leonard was called for his fourth foul of the game, as he bulldozed Chris Andersen to floor, while Andersen was setting a screen for his corner 3-point shooter. Leonard would go to the bench at the 4:13 mark, to end the quarter.

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In the fourth quarter, at the 5:02 mark, Leonard was guarding James on an isolation play.

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Leonard fouled James on the drive to the rim for his fifth foul of the game.

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Leonard’s final foul came with 47.7 seconds left in the game, as James ran a pick-and-roll play.

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Leonard was called for tripping James on the bench, and with his sixth foul, Leonard was forced out of the game.

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As you go back to Leonard’s early quote, he mentioned how not being aggressive can have an effect on his rhythm. As you can see from the information below, so far through two Finals games, Leonard’s production from the first three rounds to the Finals has taken a drastic hit on both sides of the floor.

First 3 rounds: 31.6 minutes, 13.3 points, 10.6 FGA (48% FG), 3.1 3PA (36% 3PT), 6.8 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 2.4 personal fouls, 2.4 personal fouls drawn.

112.1 Offensive Rating (3rd highest), 100.9 Defensive Rating (4th best), 11.3 Net Rating (4th best)

Finals: 27.5 minutes, 9.0 points, 7.0 FGA (43% FG), 3.0 3PA (67% 3PT), 2.0 rebounds, 1.0 steals, 4.5 personal fouls, 1.0 personal fouls drawn.

110.1 Offensive Rating (5th best), 105.8 Defensive Rating (4th best), 4.3 Net Rating (5th best)

On Saturday, Leonard said his core focus in this series is on defense. One of his most productive areas, rebounding, has really been a factor with his lack of minutes. Leonard went from averaging 6.8 rebounds to 2.0 thus far. Rebounding is a key component of Leonard’s game, because he’s able to begin transition breakaways with defensive rebounds at times, or grab offensive rebounds, for put-backs, or extra possessions. As you can see from his Defensive Rating even in these first two games, he’s still having an effect defensively when on the floor, as he has the 4th best Defensive Rating on the team.

The table below is taken from and displays the Heat’s production per game with Leonard on and off the floor through two games.

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When reading base statistics solely, Leonard hasn’t had a dramatic effect on the series defensively, as the Heat are scoring 16.5 more points when he’s on the floor, and the Heat are shooting 53% with Leonard on the floor. The Heat turnovers do increase by 6.5 when Leonard is on the floor however.

The sample size for the 2014 NBA Finals is still relatively small, as the series is tied at 1-1. Right now, there could be arguments that either San Antonio or Miami could be up 2-0 in this series, or vice versa. One thing is for sure, Leonard has struggled early on out of the gate, as Travis Hale of Pounding the Rock noted Monday, but one factor that also must not be forgotten, is that the Spurs are no longer facing the 2013 version of James. Instead, the “King” has used more versatility, and expanded his offensive arsenal.

(Statistics via, Synergy Sports. Screen shots via


Paul Garcia

About Paul Garcia

Paul is a San Antonio Spurs credentialed media member for Project Spurs. He covered the 2013 NBA All-Star Game in Houston, TX, and the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals. Paul has been featured on WOAI, Fox 29, and numerous nationwide radio shows.