Kawhi Leonard saved the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday. The team that had the league's best record needed him to smack the ball away from DeAndre' Bembry and stonewall Trae Young in the game's final 30 seconds in order to beat the lowly Atlanta Hawks by a mere three points. The play that stuck with me, though, took place about a minute earlier and had no bearing on the outcome.
With the Raptors down by one, Leonard isolated against Bembry. A spin move propelled him to the paint, and all five Hawks defenders had their eyes on him. Three of them converged, trying to force a turnover or at least make him give up the ball. In traffic, Leonard managed to find Kyle Lowry as open as he has ever been at the top of the key. Lowry missed the 3 badly, but that's hardly the point.
This is likely the play Nick Nurse had in mind when he said that Leonard has "a lot of arms climbing all over him," requiring him to use his considerable strength just to complete a pass. The Toronto coach lightly suggested that "maybe, some of those, he should be shooting free throws, but he plays through the hits and keeps finding people."
Leonard had six assists to go with his 31 points against Atlanta, and his coach probably wouldn't have praised Leonard in this particular way two months ago. "About 12-15 games into the season," Nurse said, Leonard started seeing more double- and triple-teams. In a new system, with new teammates, the superstar didn't always have the clearest picture of the court in his head, especially with multiple bodies flying at him. Over the course of the season, Leonard has figured it out -- his passing has never been better -- and is regularly hitting cutters for layups and shooters for wide-open looks.
"Even when Kawhi's in kill mode, things are flowing much better," Nurse said.
Leonard's kill mode is powerful. Last week against the Utah Jazz, he scored a career-high 45 points, 19 of them coming in a third-quarter takeover. It was one of the most impressive performances anyone has had this season. There is a natural tension, though, between the Raptors' offensive flow and Leonard's individual exploits. Some of that is relieved when Leonard makes it a point to be a passer.