The NBA regular season is a necessary evil, where the emphasis is as much on survival as it is winning games. It isn’t until the playoffs, when teams finally have the time and need to game plan in earnest, that true colors are revealed. Early success is one thing. But can you exert your will over an entire series, after tendencies have been exposed and the wrinkles are all exhausted? This was a question Kawhi Leonard answered emphatically in the second round last season against Golden State, clamping down on 6-7 sharpshooter Klay Thompson with increasing success as the Spurs won 4-2. The matchup will be revisited tonight at the AT&T Center, where the two teams will clash with identical 4-1 records. Defense is never an individual job, particularly against players as talented as Thompson and his fellow Splash Brother, Stephen Curry. That’s why Danny Green cited the Spurs’ success in defending both to their bigs for hedging on the perimeter. He wasn’t just being humble. Looking back through the film of that series, and you’re just as likely to see Tim Duncan contesting a long jumper as Leonard or Green. But every defense needs a front line, and that’s a job at which Leonard excelled. He got his chance after Thompson forced Gregg Popovich’s hand in Game 2, overpowering the Spurs for 34 points and eight 3-pointers as Golden State won for the first time in San Antonio since 1997. Not wanting to tax Tony Parker by chasing Curry, and the willowy Green needed in his stead, Popovich shifted Leonard off fellow small forward Harrison Barnes. Leonard had already guarded Thompson to that point, but only sparingly. Of the 41 possessions on which Thompson took shots during the first two games, Leonard was the primary defender on just seven. That changed dramatically over the final four contests, during which Leonard provided the initial cover on 33 of the 53 possessions on which Thompson shot. Not surprisingly, Thompson’s production plummeted.
The Leonard effect
San Antonio Express-News | Nov 8