Kawhi Leonard: Playoff Dominance, The Shot, And A Paycheck
On May 7, 1989 a young Michael Jordan caught the ball in the closing seconds of the elimination game in the Eastern Conference first round series against Cleveland, he took two dribbles to his left and rose up for a mid range jump shot as the buzzer sounded. He hung in the air long enough to double clutch and let the smaller Craig Ehlo come crashing back to the hardwood as he sank the game winner.
It quickly became known as the shot.
Until Sunday, May 12 2019, “the shot” was the only ever game winning buzzer beater in a winner takes all game in NBA playoff history.
Now there have been two.
There was no Craig Ehlo, no misery for a Cleveland fan base that has been inexplicably cursed by the sporting gods up until the past few years. Instead, there was Marc Gasol inbounding the ball with 4.2 seconds left on the clock. Kawhi Leonard catching the ball at the top of the key, taking five dribbles to his right, leaving first Ben Simmons behind him, and then rising into a fade away over a contest from the 7-foot Joel Embiid.
Time seemed to stop.
The ball arches impossibly high as it floats through the air before landing on the rim bouncing from one part to the next. Kawhi crouches against the backdrop of his Toronto teammates and Embiid watches with absolute memorization in the corner of the court.
The ball falls into the net.
The arena erupts; Kawhi lets out a scream as his teammates maul him, a teary Embiid walks into the arms of Gasol and the NBA world explodes.
Leonard’s interview in the moments after is peak Kawhi. His outward enthusiasm is the same as a man who found a three-dollar coupon to his fourth favorite fast food chain, but there is an also a raw emotional undertone to every word he utters.
“We work on that every day. Just driving baseline. I missed the last one short, so I just wanted to put it up in the air, and I got the shooters bounce.”
“We work on that every day.” The “that” in that sentence is Leonard’s patented midrange jump shot. One he feels most comfortable taking falling to his right, and a shot I would guess he would choose to take every time with the game on the line.
There’s a reason Leonard likes his mid range jump shot so much. He’s really good at it.
According to Cleaningtheglass.com, the Toronto Raptor small forward is shooting 52% on all midrange jump shot attempts this postseason, a rate that puts him in the best possible 100th percentile. Kawhi also takes the midrange jump shot at a much higher rate than most NBA superstars. The type of shot accounts for 40% of all his field goal attempts in the playoffs, whereas his three point shot attempts account for only 25%, and his shots at the rim account for 35%. To put that in perspective, 50% of James Harden’s shots this postseason came from behind the thee point line, whereas only 20% came from the midrange.
Leonard has been statistically dominant. He finished the seven game series against Philadelphia averaging 34.7 points, 9.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.3 steals on 39.9 minutes of play. He did so on an incredibly efficient 54% from the field. On the playoffs as a whole Leonard is second in points per game at 31.8, and the leader in total points overall.
No matters what happens in the rest of the playoffs for Leonard and the Toronto Raptors the San Diego State product has made quite the case for his summer of free agency. The playoff success is undoubtedly a positive thing for the Raptors front office in the campaign to get Leonard to resign, and so it the fact that the team can offer Leonard $50 million more than anyone else. However, Leonard has shown he can be the best player on a championship winning team, and the likes of the Los Angeles teams will be coming hard for the California native.
For now though, all we can do is enjoy the virtuosic performance Leonard is putting on this postseason.
Also, someone think of a catchy nickname that will last decades for that fade away game winner.