Photo by Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Kawhi Leonard is arguably the second best player in the world and an unassuming heir to LeBron James’ throne atop the NBA. With two Defensive Player of the Year awards and a Finals MVP in his pocket, last year’s runner-up for regular-season MVP continues to grow in ways that should horrify the rest of the league.
Take San Antonio’s Game 2 win over the Memphis Grizzlies Monday night. Having set a career high earlier this season with 15 free-throw attempts against the Warriors, Leonard went 19-for-19 from the free-throw line—a historic performance that Memphis coach David Fizdale did not appreciate.
Fizdale had a right to be upset at the refs for swallowing their whistles when Memphis had the ball—the Grizzlies went to the line 15 times, total—but there’s nothing to say about Leonard, who put his head down and attacked defenders who are either too old, too slow, too big, too weak, or too impatient to hang with him. Leonard’s craftiness was on full display, too. With a dominant mid-range game, the 25-year-old repeatedly baited his man into jumping at ball and shoulder fakes, which resulted in either immediate contact or a clear path to the rim.
Vince Carter, JaMychal Green, James Ennis, Wayne Selden, and a couple Grizzly bigs who had to switch out on the perimeter—all bit the dust trying to keep Leonard at bay, or even simply deny him the ball. Leonard smiles at the chaos his drives creates, and most of his trips to the line Monday night were well earned.
So what’s the main takeaway from this performance? Is it an indictment of Memphis’ wing rotation, which doesn’t currently have Chandler Parsons or, more critically, Tony Allen? Were the whistles really as biased as Fizdale claims? Or should we expect Leonard to be this imposing on a regular basis from now on?
Superstars get to the free-throw line, and Leonard is a superstar who quietly lived at the charity stripe all year. Coming into the season, his ability to do so was a valid question mark. During last year’s playoffs, he averaged 5.1 attempts per game, with a free-throw rate of .307. During the 2016-17 regular season, those numbers jumped to 7.2 and .407.
This leap is a major reason why opponents should fear Leonard in a seven-game series. Even when his pull-up doesn’t fall, now Leonard knows how to waltz his way to easy points whenever he wants. And the more trips to the free-throw line he makes, the more opportunities San Antonio has to set up its brilliant half-court defense. Leonard’s evolving offensive game has far-reaching effects on everything else. Good luck to every team that tries to stop him.