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Watch the Tape: Gaze upon a contemptuous Kawhi

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Kawhi Leonard was extremely unimpressed with Paul George for reasons we try to unravel in this week’s Watch the Tape.

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.

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The internet is a land of hyperbole and extremes. Given the breadth of stuff online its only natural that people would gravitate to the most dramatic, most polarizing, most extreme stuff they can find. When everything is available to you why would you engage with the boring, reasonable stuff? It’s this trend towards extremes which mandated the rise of the “reaction face”.

In real life we are rarely faced with situations that necessitate the use of a reaction face. Shock, extreme rage, abject sadness; these are emotions that are (hopefully) rarities for most of us, only brought on during especially bizarre, often coincidental, circumstances. Pure joy and total validation fall on the other end of the emotional spectrum, but are, typically, similarly rare. For most people life is, presumably, a bit of an emotional flatline. Personally, the only “reaction face” that I commonly exhibit offline is that of exasperation.

But online you can go right to the source of whatever draws out the utmost joy from you, whatever causes you to swell up bright-red with anger, whatever causes you to explode with mirth. Thus, you need reaction faces. And, considering the volume of reaction-inducing content you are likely to consume, you will always need more of them.

Raptors fans, over the past few years, have relied largely on a trio of especially expressive Raptors as their source of new reaction faces: Kyle Lowry for joy, C.J. Miles and Marc Gasol for shock. These three wear their hearts on their sleeves: Miles and Gasol react to nearly every call that goes against them with looks of utter disbelief, Lowry celebrates victories with unrestrained joy, they are exactly the kinds of people you would expect to be reaction face gold mines.

The Raptors’ roster is otherwise largely populated by extreme stoics. Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby are all notorious masters of the straight face. This stoicism goes all the way to the top, as no one keeps a straighter face than the Raptors’ franchise centrepiece, Kawhi Leonard.

This is why any reaction face material Leonard gifts us with must be cherished dearly. Kawhi’s reaction faces are elevated in their importance by scarcity. Leonard laughed, one time, at the beginning of the year, and the clip of him laughing is still being paraded about incessantly to this day. And now, it appears, he has blessed us with another such face.

Behold, a Rare Kawhi:

0:00-0:04: I am honestly not sure what exactly Paul George did to evoke this reaction from Leonard. George ends up keeping Kawhi out of the lane on this possession, forcing him into a tough turn-around shot. And yet this defence, somehow, brought out a look of utter bewildered contempt.

This only elevates the Rare Kawhi. You would expect a sneer this dismissive to appear only when a player encounters abysmal defence: when a defender is utterly overpowered, conceding a dunk or an and-one that might as well have been uncontested. It indicates the offensive player’s disappointment that the defence could not even present enough of a challenge to make things interesting. It should not emerge in the face of wholly adequate defence. And yet it did.

The first explanation that jumps to mind is that Kawhi operates on an axis utterly different from us mere mortals. He understands defence so well that what looks like good defence to us appears to be embarrassing, incompetent defence to him. Paul George is likely to contend for Defensive Player of the Year, and yet, clearly, to Kawhi, he is an incredible disappointment. Was his hand is in the wrong spot? Was his post base is too high? We will never know, because us skittering insects will never achieve the impossible understanding of defence that Kawhi Leonard has attained.

0:04-0:15: Of course, having given a look filled with such derision, Kawhi could not possibly miss the shot that followed. And yet, though he makes it, the the shot is heavily contested, falling away, and from roughly 15 feet out. How on earth could Kawhi’s withering look possibly be directed at George’s defence?

Like, look, I don’t pretend to understand absolutely everything about basketball. But I think I’m pretty knowledgable when it comes to the game; I know more than most people certainly. And still, watching this play I can see absolutely nothing that would cause Kawhi to dismiss George’s defence so totally. Am I actually completely stupid? Does Kawhi really know that much more about defence than I do? This look, assuming it is directed at PG’s defence, is causing me something of an existential crisis. I’ve watched tens of thousands of hours of basketball, and, faced with the possibility that the defence played on this possession was actually that bad, that seems like an extraordinary waste of time. Because I can find hardly any fault with what PG does here.

No, for the sake of my sanity, I must assume that this Rare Kawhi was prompted by something other than George’s defence. Fortunately, we have a ready-made answer.

0:15-0:19:

Following this game, George said that he’d spoken with Kawhi regarding his impending free agency. George never said when he’d spoken to Kawhi about his free agency options, but I think we can all guess. After all, there are very few things in this world which could possibly evoke the level of dismissive contempt shown on Kawhi’s face here. But the thought of joining the Los Angeles Clippers, well, that would certainly do it.