Watch the Tape will teach you absolutely nothing about basketball, how to watch it better, or how it’s properly played. It WILL take you on a tour of some of the finest, and most random Raptors-related (and sometimes adjacent) material on the net.
Late game execution is a tricky thing. The platonic ideal for basketball says that all five guys on the court should ping the ball around until an excellent shot materializes. After all, the dudes playing at the end of the game are amongst the very best basketball players in the world. If you get them a high-percentage look, they should make it.
In practice it doesn’t work that way. Defenses are dialled in to the highest possible level. Even the members of the “final five” have warts. Not every guy can hit the open jumper, lots of guys can’t handle the rock well enough to stress the defense, opening the holes needed for the ball to start that pinging and end up in an open hand. Some guys can’t make those passes in the tighter windows late-game situations provide.
Which is why, generally, NBA teams have always deferred to their best on the ball creator at the very end. It’s why the teams with the guy who’s tops at that skill — Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, to a lesser extent Manu and Tony Parker — usually win titles.
But simply putting the ball in the big dog’s hands isn’t a plan in and of itself.
This play has been analyzed to death, so I’ll be quick. Norman Powell arguably comes late to set the screen, but definitely didn’t set it well — so much so that he had to try a second time. This gave James Harden, who’s a good one-on-one defender when engaged, oodles of time to read the play and use his size and quickness to force Kawhi into a horrible shot.
(You can also argue that using Powell was an odd choice. Everyone is expecting Kawhi to finish this play off, but if that’s Danny Green setting the screen P.J. Tucker is in a tougher situation. Even Kyle Lowry, despite the lousy day he had, would have had more gravity.)
In this situation though, even a good screen doesn’t guarantee Leonard the space you’d want.
Leonard isn’t elite at passing out of attack situations, and his dribbling is more of the straight-line variety. Kawhi doesn’t slither past dudes, he bowls through them. If Leonard stays on his left, Harden can force him to the help, and Leonard’s cross-over doesn’t have a hope of shaking Harden.
That same weakness reared it’s head in the Raps double OT win over Washington earlier this month. The coverage of that game made it sound like Leonard had saved the Raptors. And, in a sense, he did. But, based on scheme, and the weaker parts of Leonard’s game, it was a lot harder than it needed to be.
In the last five minutes of the fourth and both OT, the Raptors had Kawhi shoot the ball thirteen times. The rest of the team shot ten times.
Kawhi turned the ball over just once, officially, although watching I saw two. But he also got only one assist — the crucial kick-out to Ibaka for the de facto winning three. He probably should have had more, the rest of the Raps were a brutal 1-10 in that stretch — only hitting that final shot, and at least one Leonard pass led to free-throws (off another Ibaka three).
Still, that Leonard focused offense didn’t generate any no-doubt looks (dump-ins around the rim, hitting a cutter en-route to the bucket), and he shot 5 of 13 with a turnover. Not awful, but not winning numbers either.
In both the final play in Houston, and down the stretch in Washington, the Raps ran one play. Get the ball to Kawhi in space beyond the arc, maybe set a screen, maybe not, then have him attack a prepared defense. That Kawhi got what he did is a testament to his skill.
But, it again underscored that weakness. Kawhi wasn’t able to make any next level passes in that 15 minute span, and, he generally willingly drove into the teeth of that defense.
Tomas Santoransky did this consistently to Leonard during this period. If he was on the same side of the floor he would get to the spot Kawhi wanted to first — taking him out of rhythm and making the shot much harder.
Sometimes Leonard still hit the shot, but it’s not a great recipe for success.
On the final shot of regulation Kawhi slips, but even still, Trevor Ariza is there step for step with Leonard. Santoransky is lurking around again, although this time it’s Otto Porter who ends up where Leonard wants to be and stunts, forcing a still off-balance Leonard to go into his shooting motion early.
Simply put, clearing out for Leonard isn’t the optimal use of a guy who isn’t an elite ball-handler and passer, who likes to survey the floor, and doesn’t have an absolute top-notch first step.
When the Raps do this, more often than not, the defense can get set, waiting for the drive, Leonard probably isn’t dusting his man to the extent that a panicked rotation follows, opening up passes, and even if he does, that pass isn’t always in his tool-box (or, perhaps mindset).
It’s why, against Dallas, even though it was still the same old-iso ball at the end, I much preferred how and where Nick Nurse used his closer.
What on earth are the Mavs supposed to do about that? Wesley Matthews is a big, physical, wing, but he doesn’t have a prayer of stopping Leonard.
If Matthews plays off him, Leonard, a master mid-range shooter, can step in to an easy one. If Dallas’ help comes quicker — the corner pass to Ibaka is wide open (if this is going to become a staple, I’d rather stash Green on the side Leonard wants to go on to give him more space and get the Raps best shooter there.)
Nurse liked it so much, he went back to it the next time down the floor.
This play shows that getting that deep position isn’t easy. here Matthews is able to muscle Kawhi out to the three-point line, and DeAndre Jordan is waiting on the move, but, Kawhi is so strong he draws the foul, since Matthews has to start in Kawhi’s body.
The bonus here is that there is another easy outlet pass — again to Ibaka beyond the arc. (It bears repeating that Serge isn’t ideal here because he needs time to get his shot off and the tighter spacing of this set means Jordan should be able to recover in time. If Nurse plans to make this a staple, he’ll want to try to have a Kyle, or a Green, or a Fred VanVleet in that safety valve position.)
This game also showed a great example of how Kawhi can make higher difficulty passes. It also, perhaps not coincidentally, coincides with a play where Leonard makes his move quickly, not allowing the defense to prepare.
While Leonard does pull the ball back out, once Kyle set his screen, Kawhi uses it immediately. This scrambles the defense — helped by the fact that Matthews has to stick with Lowry, who hit five triples in the game — for that extra beat.
Even though Jordan is waiting down low, that smidgen of space means Leonard has time to see the floor and make the pass because, unlike against Washington, where Leonard took the ball up high and rhythmically prepared his attack, the rest of the Mavs can’t safely cheat to one side of the floor early.
No one play can ever be fool-proof. NBA coaches and athletes are too good for that, but Dallas was an encouraging sign that Nurse may have uncovered a new wrinkle he can throw at teams that plays into his star player’s unique skill set, as well as further evidence that Leonard can make incremental improvements in his game, making it harder on the Raptor’s opponents to muzzle them in the clutch.