LOS ANGELES — Kawhi Leonard came off a pick-and-roll and delivered a bounce pass to a diving Ivica Zubac for what appeared to be an open runner.
The LA Clippers got a ghoulish dose of trick or treat, though, as Zubac’s shot bounced three times before softly resting on the back of the rim. Leonard, who watched an assist vanish — or, more literally, get stuck — could only smile and laugh.
Entering this Halloween game against the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard was averaging a career-high 7.5 assists — a terrifying prospect for opponents. And even though most of his damage was from scoring on Thursday, torching San Antonio for a season-high 38 points (on a career-high 32 field goal attempts) to go with 12 rebounds and a season-low one assist in a 103-97 Clippers win, Leonard has turned heads with his playmaking this season.
“He’s grown in that area so much as a playmaker,” said Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego, who worked with Leonard as an assistant coach in San Antonio from 2015 to 2018, including his first two All-Star seasons. “Coming in, he was always a willing teammate, a willing passer. But the game has slowed down for him so much … He’s drawing more coverages than ever right now, but he’s trying to play the right way, moving the ball, [and he] did not have that early on his career … now he’s moving the ball better than ever.”
“Nobody saw this coming in Kawhi Leonard.”
Entering his ninth season, Leonard’s career high in assists per game was the 3.5 he averaged during the 2016-17 season. But in the first four games with the Clippers, Leonard dished five or more, often creating easy buckets for his big men with pick-and-roll bounce passes.
“I think it’s funny; the narrative out there was that he can score and do a lot of things. But they didn’t know about his playmaking,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said after Leonard’s nine assists in the Clippers’ Oct. 24 win at the Golden State Warriors. “Over the [first few] games, he has pretty much answered those questions.”
After Leonard had six assists in his Clippers preseason debut, Zubac marveled at Leonard’s passing and how wide open he was on several pick-and-rolls.
“I [don’t] think he showed us what he got in practice,” Zubac said, the beneficiary of several Leonard assists against the Warriors (16 points and 10 rebounds) after barely being able to stay on the floor last postseason.
Leonard attributes his uptick in assists and playmaking to the current circumstances of the Clippers’ roster. The Clippers don’t have a true point guard in Rivers’ rotation. And until Paul George returns, Leonard has taken on the responsibility of handling the ball, probing inside the 3-point line and seeing what defenses will give him.
“The last two teams I played on, was a dominant point guard with Tony Parker and Kyle [Lowry],” Leonard said after Monday’s home victory over the Hornets. “They did much of our playmaking. I feel like I have to step up in that role right now and get our players open shots.”
As a result, Leonard has torqued opposing defenses in uncomfortable ways. He can get to his midrange spots with his size and strength and score off step-backs or shots in the paint, such as when he hit seven straight baskets during a torrid stretch in the first half of the season opener against the Los Angeles Lakers. In the Clippers’ very next game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr tried to take the ball out of Leonard’s hands before he could get to his spots. But Leonard beat the double-teams by finding open teammates off pick-and-rolls before finishing with 21 points and nine assists in 21 minutes.
“You got two Finals MVPs with two different teams — your boy can do everything,” Clippers guard Patrick Beverley said following the triumph over Golden State. “They don’t just give those awards to people who can’t play. He’s proven it. Of course, he’s been put in a lot of positions where you have to make a lot of buckets. Due to the amount of shooters we have, the big guys that roll, our dynamic of the team is going to make his job a lot easier.
“Teams put so much attention on Kawhi on pick-and-rolls. Zu is there to get all the loose change.”
The Spurs obviously know Leonard better than anyone else, and they seemed content with letting their former star taking shots through the first three quarters. After a rough first half that saw Leonard make only 5 of 16 shots, Leonard continued attacking and had 25 second-half points on 10-of-16 from the field.
“Tonight he showed his genes,” Clippers guard Lou Williams said. “He just literally put us on his back and made play after play, especially in the fourth quarter. When I couldn’t get going, nobody else could make shots, he really carried us and made plays for us.”
“It looked like he was pretty incentivized,” Williams added of Leonard facing his former team. “It damn sure felt like it.”
When the Spurs did send a double-team late, Leonard made the right play, including when he hit an open Beverley on the wing before the guard found Montrezl Harrell open underneath for a basket and the foul that gave the Clippers a 101-95 lead with 1:27 remaining.
The assists might have been there too had the Clippers shot better; they missed 10 of 11 shots off of Leonard’s passes Thursday night, including 0-for-6 from 3.
“They didn’t help off as much as the other teams did,” Rivers said of San Antonio’s defensive approach to Leonard. “I’m sure they watched film and said, ‘If you trap him, he’s going to kill you.’ He’s just so big he can see over everything.”
When Leonard was drafted 15th overall out of San Diego State in 2011, the Spurs saw the strength, athleticism and, of course, massive hands. But they also saw a player who needed development with his shot and passing.
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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich didn’t just say kind words before Thursday’s contest about how much Leonard has developed, but spoke at length about the forward, whose much-publicized divorce with San Antonio led to a trade with the Toronto Raptors.
“When we made that trade and drafted for him, we didn’t know he was going to be Kawhi Leonard,” Popovich said. “Just like we didn’t know Manu [Ginobili] was going to be Manu when we drafted him. People who tell you that are full of crap. You never know how a player is going to develop, whether he is drafted fourth or 19th. You just don’t know.”
“But from the get-go, Kawhi had a work ethic that was exemplary,” Popovich continued. “… The first thing we did was talk to him about defense. From Day 1, I hit him. I said, ‘You need to be an all-league defender. That’s your first goal. The offense will come.’ … It was obvious that he could be a great defender … but surely, year after year after year, he got better and better at the offensive end.”
George is expected to return from offseason surgeries on his shoulders in mid-November. But Rivers has liked what he has seen from Leonard the playmaker so much that he might keep the ball in his hands when the two stars finally take the floor together.
“Kawhi’s been easy to integrate,” Rivers said. “You just give him the ball. I’m no fool. But the spacing, what we’ve learned about Kawhi is how well he sees the floor and the type of passer that he is.
“That’s going to make us a lot better, and you know now that you can use Kawhi as the passer to PG, which should be pretty lethal.”
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