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Analysis: Kawhi Leonard and Toronto’s defense undoes the Warriors in Game 4

Powered by Kawhi Leonard’s astounding performance, the Raptors locked in on defense and turned away every attempt by the Warriors to take control of Game 4 — and the NBA Finals series as a whole.

NBA: Finals-Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors went into Oracle Arena in the NBA Finals and took both Games 3 and 4. The first had some qualifying asterisks. The second, not so many. Let’s dive into a thoroughly impressive Game 4 road win for Toronto, who now sit just one win away from the 2019 NBA championship.

A True Superstar

We talk a lot about Kawhi Leonard. And yet not nearly enough.

In Game 4, Leonard put up this line: 36 points on 25 used possessions, 12 rebounds, two assists, four steals and zero turnovers.

Using’s PIE box score catch all, it’s the fifth best individual performance in these 2019 playoffs across the league. And Leonard now owns the single highest game PIE in these playoffs, three of the top five, and four of the top seven. And six of the top 13. Yeesh.

(PIE: box score catch all metric that gives more value to statistics based on how available those statistics were in a given game - for example, rebounds in a game with very few total rebounds would be worth more)

All of that is impressive. But last night was truly rare.

The number of 36 point, four steal, 12 rebound games in NBA playoff history is eight. That’s in, like, ever — or at least since steals were officially tracked in 1973. Eight times a player has done that.

Only four of those have had zero turnovers. Vince Carter in the Game 6 win over Philadelphia (the echoes of Vince Carter in the Kawhi trade keep on reverberating). Michael Jordan twice in two different Eastern Conference Finals series. And Kawhi Leonard, in the NBA Finals. Which makes that the only time an NBA player has ever managed that particular stat line in the NBA Finals. (Historical game logs per

What’s more, Leonard carried Toronto in key ways beyond raw production. Seven Raptors played more than 11 minutes in this game. Every single one had at least one turnover except Kawhi, in spite of Kawhi carrying, as ever, the highest usage rate on the team, and playing over 40 minutes, less than a minute off the team lead. (As far as minutes load goes, Pascal Siakam remains the team’s work horse.) So Kawhi powered the low turnover night. Throw in his four steals (again, leading the team) and Kawhi really drove the Raptors winning the turnover battle 17 to 9, which is crucial given how dangerous Golden State is on the run. (The Warriors still won the points-off-turnovers battle 14-10.)

The Raptors went 10-of-32 from long range in Game 4, good for a 31 percent success rate. And just good enough shooting to leverage some good inside scoring and end up with a solid 111 offensive rating on the night. But all the non-Kawhi players on the roster combined for 5-for-23, a frigid 22 percent from distance. Kawhi went 5-for-9, and saved yet another key metric for the team. The Raptors actually managed to hit more threes than the Warriors, even with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson shooting 8-for-19 from long range (42 percent) — it helps that the rest of the Warriors totalled literally zero threes.

Kawhi also carried the offense in this one, a trend that is not new. The Raptors posted a 115 ORTG in Kawhi’s 41 minutes. They posted a 92 ORTG while he sat. That 23 point swing is the biggest on the team.

None of this is new. Kawhi is amazing.

The Raptors’ Lockdown Defense

The Raptors’ defense has looked incredible all series long. They’ve been holding the Warriors to roughly average offensive performances with some very smart matchup, rotation, and tactical decisions. But the 109-111 ORTGs the Warriors were putting up were still solid, just not overwhelming. It’s great to see, but not quite the result it looked like it should be achieving based on the job the defense had been doing.

Finally in Game 4, the Warriors’ offense wore down. Curry and Thompson still put up a combined 55 points. Only two other Warriors scored more than six points — Draymond Green and Kevon Looney each put up 10. And the Warriors were held to a 96 ORTG on the night, finally breaking under the strain of the Raptors’ defense.

Danny Green in particular had a great night, with the defense 17 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than off. Green played 30 minutes, with Fred VanVleet getting hurt late in the game, and it led to a more significant swing than even Norman Powell’s team leading 28-point margin in only 11 minutes. Actually, VanVleet was third in defensive impact with an 8-point swing, which makes Green’s performance even more impressive since VanVleet is his most common sub.

As ever, the matchups on Curry and Thompson were key. Green and VanVleet once again did a great job on Curry, with the Warriors held to an ORTG of 107 when the pair covered Curry. When those two got switched onto Thompson, the results were even more impressive, with the Warriors carrying only a 79 ORTG.

Meanwhile, using Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam on Draymond Green to blow up any screen actions paid off yet again. The Warriors managed only a 93 ORTG in the 14 possessions Kawhi guarded Green, and a 106 ORTG in the 31 possessions Siakam had the assignment. Yet again Danny Green makes a defensive appearance, with the Warriors scoring only four points on the nine possessions he got switched onto Draymond (zero points for Draymond). In all, Danny Green had a fantastic defensive night, which makes up for him going cold yet again from three (1-for-7; that one being a much-needed late bucket) after he seemed to have woken up in Game 3.

Nick Nurse deserves a ton of credit for the Raptors’ defense in general, as well as the use of a box-and-one zone that the team used a good chunk of the time when only one of Curry or Thompson were on the floor. In those moments, the Raptors dared the rest of the Warriors to beat them from distance, and it worked. They went 0-for-8.

In the six minutes where Curry was on the court without Klay Thompson, the Warriors were held to a 70 ORTG. In five minutes where Thompson played without Curry, the Warriors were held to an 80 ORTG. In the 37 minutes they shared the court, they had a 100 ORTG. All three samples represent a great job, but the Raptors’ defense really clamped down whenever the Warriors were relying on just one star to drive their offense.

On the series, those numbers are similar — Curry has managed only a 101 ORTG away from Klay, Klay has managed only a 98 ORTG without Curry. While the pair has managed a 109 ORTG together. Those one star stretches have been key to the Raptors’ success and they’ve done a fantastic job capitalizing on those minutes.

Notes on the Rotation

Overall, Nick Nurse did a fantastic job. There were only three 5-man units that lost their minutes, and they were -4 in three combined minutes. The starters all played significant minutes — Marc Gasol played the fewest with 28, and that was suppressed somewhat by the great play of Serge Ibaka. Key reserve Fred VanVleet played 29 minutes in spite of missing the end of the game due to injury. Shortening the rotation, especially down the stretch, was a great move.

Siakam and Green played the entire fourth quarter to protect the lead, Leonard and Kyle Lowry re-entered the game less than three minutes into the quarter to hold off the Warriors’ attempted comeback. Only Serge played significant fourth quarter minutes off the bench, with seven minutes in the quarter, and came close to breaking even in his minutes. (Ibaka was -2 in seven minutes in that quarter — which is good enough when defending a lead, though I’d expect a quicker trigger if the game was tied or the Raptors trailed.) Ibaka’s superlative play bought Gasol some rest and left him fresh to close the game for the final five minutes in which the Raptors were +3.

Just a master class.

With the usual exception, which Nurse seems to be doing just to give me heart palpitations at this point, Patrick McCaw once again saw the court in an NBA Finals game. It once again went poorly. McCaw played under two minutes (all in the second quarter) and went -3. At this point, his appearance on the court is a guarantee the Raptors will lose those minutes.

Thankfully, Norman Powell was given that role for the rest of the night, totalling just under 11 minutes and registering a +8. Overall, Powell had the best on-court net rating on the team (+33 points per 100 possessions) while McCaw posted a -73 net rating. On the series, Powell has played 43 minutes to a +21 net rating. McCaw has played 11 minutes to a -38 net rating. In the playoffs as a whole, Powell has a +7 net rating in 343 minutes, while McCaw has a -17 net rating in 47 minutes played.

It’s so weird. But credit at least to Nurse that McCaw has cannibalized only 20 percent of Powell’s minutes in this series, even if I don’t understand why it would be anything above zero percent.

All stats per unless otherwise noted.