MIAMI — Of the handful of players with a legitimate claim to the “best player in the world” throne, Kawhi Leonard is the easiest one to forget about. He load manages. He doesn’t talk. After he sat out basically an entire season with the Spurs, people almost forgot about him entirely until he showed up in Toronto and proceeded to take the league by storm.
Now he’s in Los Angeles.
And he’s starting to do it again.
Leonard has been great all season, to be clear. But he hasn’t been top-tier elite. Through the first six weeks of the season he was averaging 25 points, but on just 43 percent shooting, including 30 percent from three. For the month of November, those numbers went down to 23 points a game and 26 percent from three.
From there, it’s been the Kawhi of old. Since Dec. 1, Leonard is averaging 28.6 points on 48 percent shooting, including just under 40 percent from three and over 93 percent from the free-throw line. On Friday in Miami — as hard as this is to believe — Leonard posted the first triple-double of his career: 33 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in L.A.’s 122-117 victory.
After the game — in which the Clippers rallied from 14 down in the second quarter — Doc Rivers presented Leonard with the game ball. Leonard didn’t give a speech or anything, but here’s what he did say: “It’s because of y’all. Y’all made shots. That’s all a triple double is.” In the background you could hear a “that’s the truth” and then everyone started clapping as Rivers and the team came together. It didn’t exactly look or sound like a splintered locker room, as was reported by The Athletic earlier this week.
“Leonard in that second half was as good as it gets in this league,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Knocking down threes, we started to crowd him, [so] he started to put the ball on the floor, broke us down, got to the free-throw line, pretty much all of the above.”
With Kendrick Nunn, Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow already sidelined, the Heat lost Jimmy Butler to a sprained ankle halfway through the fourth quarter (x-rays were negative). Spoelstra had to mix and match all night to keep his team in it. Dion Waiters made his 2019-20 debut. Kelly Olynk got more minutes. Miami threw different coverages at Leonard. The blitzed him. Soft doubled him. Played him straight up. And he beat them all.
“They were trapping him, and instead of trying to force it, he just kept taking the traps, moving the ball and getting guys open shots,” Rivers said of Leonard. “That led to the end of the game when he then got his [isolations], and then he started scoring. So it was like he was a boxer and he just kind of took his time until he could throw punches.”
One of the most improved parts of Leonard’s game is his ability to make plays as a passer. He’s inevitably going to see double teams and crowded coverages as he attacks the paint, and being able to find shooters in those situations is a deadly weapon, which Leonard can now legitimately include as part of his arsenal.
To Rivers’ point about Leonard accepting the traps on the perimeter and calmly finding shooters rather than forcing his own action, this is what he’s talking about:
This is the type of pass that LeBron James has been making, naturally, his whole life. But it’s a big development for Leonard. If you want to do the tale of tape, LeBron is clearly the better playmaker, the scoring is a wash, and Leonard has the defense. In fact, Leonard is quietly starting to guard this season like the all-world defender we know he is when it matters most.
The Clippers have won 10 of their past 14 games. They are just the second team to beat Miami at home this season, and they did it without Paul George, who Rivers said “is close” to coming back. Entering Saturday, they’re up to No. 3 in the West and right on the Jazz’s heels for the No. 2 spot. Kawhi time is coming, and so are the Clippers.