TORONTO – Draymond Green believes he’s the best defensive player in basketball. Klay Thompson sought inclusion on the NBA’s all-defensive team for years. Andre Iguodala, even at 35 years old, can still neutralize just about any opponent.
Golden State has some big-time defenders, without question.
And they all respect Kawhi Leonard’s offensive game.
They will probably all get a turn at guarding Toronto’s best player at some point during the NBA Finals, whether the assignment is by design or just sort of happens organically when defenders get switched during a Raptors possession. When the title series starts on Thursday night, the biggest key for the Warriors will likely be slowing down Leonard – the dominant player so far in this postseason.
“He’s been playing amazing this whole playoff run and really all season,” Warriors star Stephen Curry said. “He’s always at his own pace, and never seems to get rushed or be in a hurry. He’s obviously physically gifted and strong. He can get to his spots, but he’s become a really good shooter. Off the dribble, getting to a spot, rising up. … But we have some capable – beyond capable – defenders to guard him.”
Those capabilities will be tested.
The only thing that has slowed Leonard in these playoffs was the flu, which he was dealing with when he shot 5 for 19 in Game 3 against Orlando. Not even a leg injury has been able to derail Leonard. He’s averaged 31.2 points in the playoffs, along with 8.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists while shooting 51 percent.
The numbers he’s put up so far in the playoffs compare to what LeBron James in his last four playoff runs with Cleveland.
The East isn’t owned by James anymore.
For now, it belongs to Leonard and the Raptors – who’ll take their turn in the role James has held, facing Golden State for a title. The Warriors’ primary task in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 was slowing James. This year, slowing Leonard is the priority. And he’s been boning up on film, trying to figure out what he can do to maximize his chances.
“I think it just really comes down to being smart and just being in those situations before and just knowing what’s going to happen,” Leonard said. “Going through years of playing and seeing defensive schemes or offensive schemes and watching film and seeing how they guarded other guys or me in the past.”
Leonard hasn’t faced Green since May 14, 2017 – Game 1 of the Western Conference finals that year between the Warriors and San Antonio, the game where the Spurs were up big and Leonard had 26 points in the third quarter and was generally unguardable. And then Zaza Pachulia closed out on him, got his foot under Leonard’s on a jumper, creating an awkward landing that knocked Leonard out for the rest of that series.
Iguodala and Thompson have seen Leonard once since, that being back in November, a game in Toronto where the Raptors’ star scored 37. He made his first six shots that night, the first four of them when the Warriors matched Damion Jones against Leonard. By the time the fourth shot fell, Jones just put his head back in mock disbelief. It wasn’t like he wasn’t trying. He just didn’t have the capability to stop him.
It’ll be a different approach on Thursday night.
“I would say they’re going to probably do something similar to what we’re going to do,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “There are a lot of bodies that can guard a lot of different people. I think you are going to see a lot of different people.”
Green said Leonard doesn’t dominate games in the same way that James, or Curry, or still-injured Warriors star Kevin Durant, or Portland’s Damian Lillard can when they get rolling.
It wasn’t a knock. Green insisted Leonard’s style is just as effective.
“Kawhi didn’t come into this league as a scorer, yet he’s one of the best scorers we have in the league now,” Green said. “It just doesn’t look the same, but the results are the same and/or better. He’s really worked to get to where he is today.”
Thompson also tipped his cap to Leonard, saying he’s MVP-caliber. And Iguodala went a step further, saying the Warriors have to be ready to “throw the whole kitchen at him.”
“He’s kind of got a different game than anybody,” Iguodala said. “He’s very unique with his strength, with his quickness, being able to explode to the basket but also being a threat from the perimeter. He’s pretty much got it all.”
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