This article was originally published between Games 4 and 5 of the 2019 1st Round series between the Toronto Raptors and Orlando Magic. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Playoff Kawhi is awesome.
It's certainly still early as the Toronto Raptors still have work to do in the 1st Round against the Orlando Magic, but it's already apparent that Leonard is once again elevating his play in the postseason.
Through four games, Leonard is pouring in 28.0 points per game which ranks third in the NBA behind only Damian Lillard and Kevin Durant. This despite ranking outside the top 20 league-wide in minutes while also playing in the slowest-paced series of any of the eight opening round matchups.
When taking into account the complete context, Leonard has been the NBA's most prolific scorer so far this season, averaging a league-high 41.1 points per 100 possessions according to Basketball-Reference.com (min. 100 minutes played).
That Leonard is operating as the most prolific volume in the league isn't entirely on brand with perception. We don't often view him as a "take over the game" scorer in the same way that we think about Durant or Lillard or James Harden. The perception of Leonard is more in tune with a "killing 'em softly" approach, an under-stated assassin that does it efficiently on both ends without the loud histrionics.
(Editors' note: there would be plenty of 'take over the game' moments in the weeks to follow!)
Though certainly capable of lighting up the box score, Leonard's best offensive performances are often a mix of overall efficiency with smaller stretches of "get on my back" dominance as opposed to start-to-finish, one-man band Herculean efforts. He has only one 40-point game, coming back in 2017 in a loss, and you can count on two hands the number of times he's dropped 30. Entering the postseason, Leonard did however rank third all-time in postseason true-shooting percentage including first among all active players. The only player among his peers who truly rivals Leonard when it comes to across the board shooting efficiency is Stephen Curry.
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The most impressive aspect of Leonard's hike in volume so far through four games is that he's done it without sacrificing any of his trademark efficiency. Not only is he third in postseason scoring, he's doing it while flirting with 50-40-90 shooting splits despite the Game 3 clunker in which he shot 5-19.
The list of players to keep up that level of scoring with that type of efficiency is a small one, a who's who of MVP and Finals MVP caliber players. When you start looking at who has done it for an extended postseason run with a relatively large amount of 3-point attempts, the only two players who can truly rival the type of run Leonard is in the early stages of are Durant and LeBron James, not only two of Leonard's contemporaries at his position, but two of the greatest scorers in league history.
Though he's taking it to another level right now, Leonard's mix of high volume and high efficiency is nothing new. This could be his third postseason scoring over 20 points per game with 50-40 shooting splits, a feat matched only by Reggie Miller and LeBron James. Remove the volume scoring from the equation to take into account Leonard's early years in San Antonio as a productive role player and this could be his fifth postseason shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc which would be the most such postseasons by any player in NBA history.
Simply put: he always shows up to the point where you can statistically make the case for Leonard as the most consistent postseason finisher - regardless of role - in NBA history.
But let's not get entirely carried away.
They're four games into a run against a team that hasn't been in the playoffs in seven years.
The Raptors didn't trade for Leonard to watch him go off in the 1st Round against the Orlando Magic and walk away satisfied. This is a team with much higher aspirations and one that won't truly be judged until things get more difficult.
But you have to start somewhere.
And for Kawhi Leonard, that somewhere is shaping up to something special.
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