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If Kawhi Turns His Back To The Basket, Watch Out

Kawhi Leonard just might be the most complete, adaptable and technically precise basketball player in the world. He drills threes, draws fouls, gobbles rebounds, manipulates pick and rolls and places whomever he’s defending in a vice grip with Defensive Player of the Year-caliber intensity.

Not only does the ball shrink into a peach pit whenever it slaps against Leonard’s mighty hands, but everytime he steps on the court, he brings a game that’s been molded to dominate areas of the floor, placing an insoluble strain on the opposition.

Right now, that dominance is most notable whenever Leonard posts up, which is at a higher volume and efficiency than we’ve ever seen from him in the playoffs. According to Second Spectrum, Leonard averaged 2.26 post-ups per 100 possessions during the 2016-17 playoffs, which ranked him 28th of the 32 players with at least 15 post-ups. By last year’s championship run, Leonard’s 4.14 post-ups per 100 possessions came in at 19th out of the 31 players with at least 15 post-ups, and the Raptors generated an excellent 1.31 points per possession in these spots.

Against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of this year’s playoffs, those numbers climbed even higher for Leonard. No player with at least 10 post-ups has created more offense than Leonard’s comically absurd 1.6 points per possession on the play. And his frequency has crept up to 5.88 post-ups per 100 possessions — placing him 12th of the 26 eligible players, according to Second Spectrum.

Some of this is because Dallas’s roster wasn’t built to slow down a player like Leonard. Maxi Kleber fought as well as anyone could expect, and both Dorian Finney-Smith and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist tried to make Leonard’s life uncomfortable, but they … didn’t. When the Clippers called for a post-up, Leonard routinely had the defense right where he wanted it — be it after a series of fluttering jab steps from the mid-post, or a methodical backdown that eventually concluded with him muscling through contact.

Kawhi’s footwork is second to none. In the video below, just look at the amount of space he creates after nailing his left foot into the ground. If you were to go outside and try this move with nobody around, you’d probably slide right off the side of planet Earth. Leonard not only does it in an NBA playoff game, but he does it with enough strength, composure and balance to drain the fall-away jump shot.

Leonard can always feast one-on-one, but the Clippers also like to position him on the left block, then have a point guard come down to set a screen on his man and force a defensive rotation. Thanks to Leonard’s refined handle and improved vision, there’s no obvious way to manage the action without giving up a shot Los Angeles is happy to take.

Leonard averaged over six assists per 100 direct post-ups in last year’s playoffs. In this year’s playoffs, he’s at 18.8, according to Second Spectrum. But even when his work out of the post doesn’t directly lead to an assist, Leonard’s willingness to bunt is part of why the Clippers are scoring 1.2 points per possession when he’s in the game.

Once he spots a double team, Leonard doesn’t panic; he doesn’t try to make a daring skip pass to the opposite corner or bulldoze through the incoming coverage. Instead, he trusts the domino effect of his own influence, makes the simplest read, then watches his teammates leverage the advantage he created against a scrambling defense.

The Denver Nuggets have a few more players to throw at Leonard than Dallas did, but handling him in single coverage is a tough task for any human; the options on their roster are either too small (Gary Harris) or slow (Paul Millsap) to do anything but turn into a puddle.

Jerami Grant is Kawhi’s most likely matchup, but watch how the Clippers dealt with him on this play during the regular season: Paul George set an early off-ball screen to force a switch and allow Leonard to scamper toward the strong side with smaller prey on his trail. The play is double trouble, with George flying around a stagger screen and Leonard jostling for a snug position down on the left block.

Leonard is a master at both identifying specific spots where he’s most comfortable and getting there pretty much whenever he wants. That often means a one-dribble pull-up at the elbow or a rugged right-handed drive toward the baseline that ends in his patented fadeaway.

But nothing foretells doom for the defense quite like those post touches. They’re exasperating, breathtaking and raw, an opportunity for him to showcase all that makes him the closest embodiment of basketball perfection. Whenever the Clippers’ offense slips into a drought, their smartest move might also be the least complex: dump the ball down to Kawhi Leonard and get out of the way.

Michael Pina is an NBA writer from Boston who lives in Brooklyn. His work has been published in GQ, The New York Times and several other places across the internet. He is also the co-host of Sports Illustrated’s Open Floor podcast.