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Playoffs 2019

NBA Playoffs 2019: Kawhi Leonard's defence on Giannis Antetokounmpo has changed the Eastern Conference Finals

Name another player capable of defending Giannis Antetokounmpo as well as Kawhi Leonard. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Leonard finished with 19 points and scored or assisted on just seven of Toronto's 41 made field goals in the series-swinging Game 4 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks.

And yet it might have been his single best game of the entire postseason.

I don't say that lightly.

This is a man who dropped 41 in Game 7 against the 76ers while drilling what will go down as one of the most memorable shots in NBA postseason history. This is a man that's time and again completely taken over games as he did in Game 1 of that Philadelphia series, scoring 45 points and hauling in 11 rebounds.

While that Game 7 will surely go down as Leonard's signature game of this postseason and perhaps his entire career, it's what happened on the floor of Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday that articulates everything you need to know about what truly makes Leonard one of a kind.

MORE: "We have a chance to make history."

There are others capable of stringing together dominant offensive performances like those two we saw against the 76ers. It's not hard to imagine the likes of Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry or James Harden or Damian Lillard or any number of other stars pulling that off.

But stopping Giannis Antetokounmpo on one leg? While also playing free safety? While also burdened with everything asked of him on the other end?

"What are you talking about! Giannis was great, he finished with 25-10-5 while making over half of his shots!"

Casually looking at a box score doesn't begin to scratch the surface on the job that Leonard did in making Antetokounmpo's life difficult in Game 4.

According to NBA.com's matchup data, Leonard guarded the Greek Freak over three times as much as any other Raptors player. Here's what happened on those 34 matchups:

  • Antetokounmpo scored 3-7 on 7 shots
  • He dished out 1 assist while turning the ball over twice
  • He did not draw a single shooting foul
  • The Bucks had an offensive rating of 83.8

This is the part of the show where I mention that the publicly available version of this data isn't perfect. It doesn't for instance differentiate between the half court and transition. It doesn't do a great job taking into account switches. It doesn't pinpoint double teams or when an entire D collapses to help a single primary defender.

But it's far superior to the alternative which is nothing and more importantly, helps quantify what we all saw with our own eyes: Leonard's D is the difference maker.

It seems simple: let your best defender, the wiry and long-armed tank who is built like an ox and is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, guard the other team's best player.

But that comes at a cost. As we've seen throughout the entire playoffs, the Raptors have struggled to manufacture points when left to anyone outside of Leonard to create. It takes a ton of energy to carry the offensive burden each and every night. Emptying the tank on one end leads to running on fumes at the other. It's why for the first two games in this series, Nick Nurse opted not stick Leonard onto Antetokounmpo.

Down 2-0, he didn't have much of a choice.

MORE: Teams to come back from 2-0 series deficit

Starting in Game 3, Leonard has taken on the bulk of the assigment. After guarding him just 13% of the time over the first two games of the series, drawing the assignment fewer times than both Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka, Leonard has been the primary defender guarding Antetokounmpo on 47% of possessions. Throw in all of the times he's helped after getting switched off and that number climbs even higher.

Kawhi Guarding Giannis
Matchups Pct of Matchups
Game 1 8 10%
Game 2 11 15%
Game 3 41 44%
Game 4 34 52%

The results speak for themselves beyond winning both games in Toronto.

In Games 3 and 4, the Bucks offense has an offensive rating of 110.7 whenever their MVP hopeful is matched up against anyone other than Leonard. That number plummets to 88.0 whenever he's checked by Leonard.

Giannis himself is a completely different player. Against everyone not named Kawhi Leonard, he's 9-14 from the field with 10 assists and eight turnovers.

Against Kawhi? Just 5-19 with only two assists and four turnovers.

All of this of course wouldn't be possible without all five defenders communicating and flying all over the floor. Leonard isn't doing this himself as they've sent smart help to shade from non-shooters (hello, Eric Bledsoe!) while the bigs, particularly Marc Gasol, have done an outstanding job staying vertical and making it difficult to finish over length.

The key question moving forward is can Leonard keep this up?

It might depend on which version of the Raptors supporting cast shows up on the other end of the floor. When Kyle Lowry is aggressively looking to score, when Marc Gasol is picking apart defenses with his passing, when Pascal Siakam is searching for opportunities to attack and when Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet are banging in timely open 3-pointers, it takes considerable pressure off of Leonard. Almost all of that happened in Game 4 which allowed for Leonard's individual defence to turn the tide.

MORE: Lowry praises bench performance

If those other cogs in the machine aren't churning, then Kawhi Leonard's two-way task becomes Mission: Impossible. Against a team this good and a player of Antetokounmpo's calibre, there's no way Leonard can do it all on both ends and expect to come out on top.

Kawhi 'Tyrannosaurus Rex' Leonard won't win this series.

It will take the entire swarming pack of Raptors to get this done and deliver the first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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