Kawhi Leonard is playing the best basketball of his career at the perfect time. He had single-game career highs in minutes (52), points (45), rebounds (17), and assists (9) in this year’s playoffs. Kawhi started as a defensive stopper, painstakingly developed into a dominant scorer, and is now one of the most complete players in the league. He controlled every aspect of the game in the Raptors’ victory over the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals. A star playing at that level has a chance against anyone. The Raptors are the underdog in the NBA Finals, but there is a formula for them to pull off the upset, especially if Kevin Durant is limited. Kawhi needs to play like LeBron James in the 2016 Finals, when he killed the pre-Durant Warriors on both ends of the floor.
Kawhi is coming off a series where he dominated his matchup with Giannis Antetokounmpo, the likely MVP. That doesn’t happen often. Two of the most famous examples are LeBron’s swallowing up Derrick Rose in 2011 and Hakeem Olajuwon’s routing David Robinson in 1995. Rose and Robinson, like Giannis would be if he won, were worthy MVPs, but they couldn’t hang with LeBron and Olajuwon, top-10 players in their primes. Giannis is as talented as Kawhi, but he’s not as well-rounded a player at this stage in his career. Kawhi doesn’t have any holes in his game. He’s a two-time Defensive Player of the Year who doubles as a historically great scorer. There have been six two-time DPOY winners in history; Hakeem is the only one besides Kawhi to average more than 25 points a game in a single postseason.
The ECF flipped when Kawhi began guarding Giannis in Game 3. Leonard is one of the few players in the NBA with the strength and quickness to stay in front of Giannis and keep him out of the paint. He forced Giannis to confront the only real weakness in his game: his perimeter shooting. Giannis shot 12-for-34 from the field (35.3 percent) in 160 possessions with Kawhi as the primary defender in the playoffs, and 117-for-228 (51.3 percent) with anyone else. It was the same type of postseason defeat that LeBron had early in his career before he became a consistent outside shooter. Giannis showed encouraging signs of growth in that department in the playoffs, but he still has a long way to go. He’s nowhere near the same level of shooter as Kawhi.
The Warriors would have used the same game plan against Giannis had he advanced to the Finals. That won’t work against Leonard. He is shooting 62.1 percent within 10 feet of the basket, 46.5 percent in the midrange between 10 feet and the 3-point line, and 38.8 percent from 3 in the playoffs. There isn’t much that any defender can do to stop him. He’s a powerfully built wing (6-foot-7 and 230 pounds) with the strength to carve out space for himself on the dribble, and he needs only a sliver of space to get his shot off. The result is a player who can score at will. Kawhi is having a playoffs for the ages, combining usage, efficiency, and defense in a way few ever have. There have been 90 postseasons in NBA history when a player has averaged at least 30 points per game. Kawhi is no. 7 on that list in true shooting percentage (62.3). He has a higher usage rate than Russell Westbrook in this year’s playoffs and a true shooting percentage comparable to Steph Curry’s (63.0).
The biggest change for Kawhi in the ECF was his improvement as a playmaker. His learning curve in that area has been different than most other superstars because he cut his teeth as a role player early in his career. It wasn’t until he took control of the Spurs offense that he really got a chance to explore that aspect of his game, and he seemed to have figured it out by the end of the Bucks series. Leonard averaged 3.3 assists and two turnovers per game in the regular season, and those numbers shot up to nine assists in Game 5 and seven in Game 6. Leonard’s individual brilliance simplified the series for the Raptors: Either Kawhi scored or he created open 3s for his teammates. All Toronto had to do was find a hot shooter. Norman Powell was the hero in games 3 and 4, shooting 7-for-18 from 3, while Fred VanVleet was lights out from 3 (11-for-14) in games 5 and 6.
Kawhi has almost single-handedly carried the Raptors through the first three rounds of the playoffs. They have been a completely different team with him on the floor, going from a net rating of plus-10.3 in 656 minutes with him to minus-12.4 in 170 minutes without him. Toronto doesn’t have anyone else whom it can consistently run offense through. Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, the other Raptors scoring in double digits in the playoffs, have been up and down. Lowry scored 30 in Game 1 against the Bucks, but his lack of size or athleticism gives him little margin for error over the course of a series. He’s had four games with fewer than 10 points in the playoffs. Siakam is a young player still learning how to be a featured option. He’s not a consistent 3-point shooter, which allows defenses to help off of him when he’s playing off the ball.
Kawhi will need to carry his teammates even more against Golden State, which has looked as dominant as ever without Durant over the past five games. He’ll have to channel his inner LeBron, the only player to have derailed this Warriors dynasty, and a player whom Kawhi played to a draw in the Finals five years ago. What LeBron did in the 2016 Finals against the original version of Golden State should be Kawhi’s blueprint. Cleveland put LeBron on Draymond Green so that he could switch the screen between Green and Curry and allow everyone else to stay at home on 3-point shooters. Using LeBron in that role allowed the Cavs to keep an elite defender on Curry, eliminating the open 3s he typically gets in the pick-and-roll, while removing four-on-three opportunities for Green, who is at his best when he can play off the extra defensive attention that Curry draws. LeBron did just enough to bottle up the Warriors on defense so that he could carry the Cavs home on offense. Kawhi will have to do the same for the Raptors.
It won’t be easy. Steph is just as impossible to guard as Kawhi is. He can punish a defender if there is even a glimmer of space to shoot and score even when a defender does everything perfectly. Scoring on the Warriors might be an even bigger challenge for Kawhi. They will likely switch between two elite perimeter defenders—Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala—on him over the course of the game, and they won’t have as many weak points on defense as Milwaukee for Kawhi to exploit. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr is more proactive when it comes to making adjustments than Mike Budenholzer. Coach Bud may have lost the ECF when he kept Brook Lopez on the floor even though Kawhi could attack him in the pick-and-roll any time that he wanted; didn’t start Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee’s best defender on Leonard, until Game 5; and kept Khris Middleton on Kawhi for huge chunks of Game 6. Kerr won’t leave that many points on the board.
Kawhi will also have a tougher challenge than LeBron in 2016 because he doesn’t have as consistent a second option as Kyrie Irving. For all the flaws that Irving showed in Boston when he was the primary option, Kyrie is one of the rare guards who can score at will against an elite defense in the playoffs. He averaged 27.1 points (46.8 percent from the field, 40.5 from 3, and 93.9 from the free throw line) and 3.9 assists in the 2016 Finals, numbers that will be hard for Lowry to match. Kawhi will likely have to put up numbers similar to LeBron’s in that series (29.7 points on 49.4 percent shooting, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals, and 2.3 blocks) for the Raptors to win. It’s a lot to ask. Kawhi, like LeBron, is one of the only players in the NBA who would even have a chance of dominating a team as good as the original version of the Warriors. Managing to do so with Durant near 100 percent would be even harder, as LeBron found out in the 2017 and 2018 Finals.
Durant is Golden State’s trump card against Leonard. He gives the team a Plan B against a defense that can switch everything and slow down Steph and Draymond while also being an elite defender in his own right. Durant is one of the most indefensible one-on-one scorers in NBA history, and he has progressed even more than Kawhi as a playmaker over his career. Not even Kawhi can slow him down. Unlike Giannis, Durant can score without getting to the rim and shoot over Kawhi as if he weren’t even there. That’s what happened in the second-round series between the Thunder and the Spurs in 2016, the last time they squared off for an entire series. Durant averaged 28.5 points on 50 percent shooting and 4.0 assists in that series and went off for 41 points in Game 4 and 37 points in Game 6.
The playoffs looked headed for a Finals showdown between Durant and Kawhi before Durant strained his calf in the second round. They were both playing at as high a level as any player in NBA history. There have been only three players to ever have a usage rate higher than 33.0 and a true shooting percentage higher than 62.0 in the same postseason: Kawhi and Durant this season and Dwyane Wade in a first-round loss in 2010. Durant’s calf injury could rob us of another opportunity to watch these two face off, just like Kawhi’s sprained ankle did in the 2017 Western Conference finals. The two are natural rivals looking to fill the void created by LeBron’s decline. Basketball becomes tennis for players at the highest levels of the game. In terms of where they are in their respective careers, LeBron is Roger Federer, while Kawhi and Durant are Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.
The first order of business for Kawhi in the Finals is forcing Golden State to bring Durant back. It’s unclear how serious Durant’s injury is, or how effective he would be if he returns after missing the past few weeks. If Kawhi can play as well as LeBron did in 2016, he could expose some of the issues the Warriors brought Durant in to fix. That may end up being enough to win the series. Kawhi has a golden opportunity in front of him. He has already won an NBA championship and been named Finals MVP with the Spurs in 2014, but he was more of a cog in their machine at the time. Leading this version of the Raptors to a championship would be one of the most incredible individual accomplishments in league history. This could be only the beginning for Kawhi. He is a 27-year-old in the prime of his career. He has a chance to take over the league over the next two weeks.