Behind a career high 29 points in the playoffs from forward Kawhi Leonard, a historic shooting first half (76% shooting), and lockdown defense in the fourth quarter (17 Miami points), the San Antonio Spurs took a 2-1 NBA Finals series lead with a 111-92 victory of the Heat in Miami Tuesday.
Along with Leonard, four other Spurs players scored in double-figures (Danny Green 15 points, Tony Parker 15 points, Tim Duncan 14 points, Manu Ginobili 11 points), while all but two Spurs who received minutes in the game scored. The Spurs’ defense held the Heat to no more than 25 points in any given quarter, and more specifically, held LeBron James to 22 points overall.
The player of the game was Leonard, so I’ve broken down his performance on both sides of the ball.
An Aggressive Kawhi
Due to his fouling issues in the first two games in San Antonio, that led to minutes restrictions, Leonard wasn’t able to get into a consistent rhythm, as evidenced by his production in his first two games.
Game 1 & 2: 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.
Game 1 & 2: 110.1 Offensive Rating, 105.8 Defensive Rating, 4.3 Net Rating
“When he’s aggressive, we are better team,” said Spurs forward Boris Diaw after Game 3 on NBATV. Diaw also mentioned that on the team’s off-day, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich had told Leonard he needed to be more aggressive Tuesday.
The message from Popovich was heard by Leonard, as he finished with 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting, four rebounds, two assists, two steals, and two blocks in 39 minutes of play. From the tip on offense, Leonard was aggressive, as he would attack the basket to earn trips to the free throw line, or when he shot a 3-pointer, he would pull the trigger quickly, and not overthink the shot. Leonard made 6-of-7 free throws, and shot 3-of-6 from beyond the arc.
Leonard posted a 131.8 Offensive Rating, 105.1 Defensive Rating, and a 26.7 Net Rating in the victory. Whether it was James, Dwayne Wade, Mario Chalmers, or Ray Allen guarding him, Leonard didn’t settle for mid-range jumpers, instead he attacked the paint to try and get to the free throw line, or kick out for opportunities for others. Along with his two assists, Leonard was also credited with two secondary assists, and one free throw assist per the SportVU data.
Another key for his offensive production was his movement off the ball. Leonard was constantly moving or cutting into positions to either get the 3-point shot, or catch-and-drive with his defender a step too slow. With his constant moving, it may have affected James on the opposite end of the floor. Leonard only drawing four fouls was a credit to both his team’s defensive scheme on James, but also on his individual mental approach when guarding James.
Kawhi’s defense and the effect on LeBron, Heat
After Game 2, I wrote an analysis piece discussing how the Heat shooting lineups with Chris Bosh and Rashard Lewis were becoming a defensive problem for Duncan and Tiago Splitter. I made the point that Popovich needed to either play Diaw and Matt Bonner, and possibly limit Splitter’s minutes. Popovich indeed made a change with his front-court rotation, as he elected to start Diaw instead of Splitter, and he shuffled the minutes between Bonner and Splitter off the bench in the first through third quarter.
With Diaw now starting, it gave the Spurs a versatile defender to guard either Bosh or Lewis on the perimeter, or switch onto James if needed. Below, you’ll see just how the Spurs defended James, and the effect it had in keeping Leonard out of foul trouble.
When James was running the pick-and-roll, the Spurs’ defense did one of two things: hedge hard, or switch entirely. Check out this early pick-and-roll possession. Leonard is guarding James, while Chalmers sets a screen for James.
Parker hedges hard to the outside toward James, and it buys enough time for Leonard to go underneath the pick and recover onto James.
Another approach the Spurs made when James did get into the paint, was pack the paint, but still stay relatively close to either Bosh, Lewis, or Allen. In reviewing the plays where James penetrated into the paint, there’s a consistent decision where the Spurs’ guards would usually leave Wade or Chalmers open. Wade isn’t known for his spot shooting from 3-point range, and so far in the series, Chalmers has struggled to find a rhythm from the outside.
Either on the pick-and-roll or transition, the Spurs’ defense also decided to live with switching if Leonard couldn’t recover on a pick, or if the man who set the pick went away from the play. There were instance like the one below, where Bonner, Ginobili, and even Parker defended James in 1-on-1 situations, and the Spurs’ defense would only help once James got into the paint.
Lastly, both James’ offensive selection and Leonard’s defense have to be examined as well. As I wrote on Monday, James had been getting Leonard in foul trouble by getting into the post stance, allowing the defense to keep him 1-on-1, and then attacking toward the rim. With the game getting out of reach early, James couldn’t afford to post Leonard, since the Heat needed quicker offensive possessions to trim the Spurs’ double-digit lead.
With James unable to run sets where he had the advantage, it gave Leonard the advantage defensively. Leonard would first deny James as much as possible, but as you can see below, when James did get the ball on the perimeter, Leonard was giving him very little space to operate. As mentioned above, Leonard also had a better mental approach defensively, as he stayed away from swipes that could be called for “ticky-tack” fouls.
James would go on to finish with seven turnovers, five personal fouls, while shooting 9-of-14 from the floor. As you can see from the chart below, the Heat were 26.7 points per 100 possessions worse when Leonard was on the floor. Even the Heat’s turnover percentage increased from 13.1% to 24.9% when Leonard was on the floor.
Finally, it wouldn’t have been a “Kawhi Leonard night” without an awkward postgame interview, where Leonard once more, makes himself seem like he’s part robot. (H/T @Courtside)
(Statistics via NBA.com/stats. Screen shots via Synergy Sports)