Milwaukee Bucks sensation Giannis Antetokounmpo will almost certainly be named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for a second consecutive season, and Los Angeles Lakers counterpart LeBron James is sure to finish second, but L.A. Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard is still the best closer in the league.
Leonard made his case last year, leading the Toronto Raptors to the title through a gauntlet that left Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry vanquished. The list of players who command playoff series victories is short, but nobody has been more trustworthy than Leonard over the past two seasons.
He is 10 wins from winning a third Finals MVP with a third different team in a span of seven years, an accomplishment that would ignite debates about where he belongs on the list of all-time greats. That he is the most dominant two-way player at a time when the league boasts an unprecedented collection of superstar talent should not be lost on anyone. That he is proving it so consistently is not fully appreciated.
We talk about the Lakers and Boston Celtics, because they are the Lakers and Celtics. We talk about Antetokounmpo’s shortcomings, because superstars are judged on championships. We talk about how Butler fits into the Heat culture and elevates them into title contention. And we talk about how the Raptors have managed to stay in the hunt despite the loss of Leonard, even as his absence becomes more glaring.
But we do not talk about Leonard beyond the highlights he gives us. He does not declare, “I’m so f---ing locked in right now, and I will do anything that it takes to win man,” as Butler did after winning Game 1 against the Bucks. He does not make vague references to internal issues amid struggles, as James did in the lead-up to the playoffs. We have come to expect his methodical dominance, and he repeatedly delivers.
These playoffs have laid bare Antetokounmpo’s limitations as a player. He is the MVP, but the Bucks cannot count on him to manufacture a bucket in the biggest moments, when defenses are designed to prevent him from barreling to the rim. He is the Defensive Player of the Year, but he is no on-ball stopper in crunch time.
These are Leonard’s specialties. If you need a crunch-time bucket, his pull-up elbow jumper is as reliable as any option in the league. (Leonard is shooting 68 percent from 8-16 feet in the playoffs, easily best among volume shooters). And if you need a late-game stop, there is no more intimidating ball hawk than Leonard.
Exhibit A: Leonard’s game-sealing block of star Denver Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray with 1:46 left in the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals — a series the Clippers now lead 2-1.
Think about how remarkable Butler has been through eight playoff games. Just an absolute force on both sides of the ball. Now dial it up a few more notches, and you have Leonard. The Clippers star is averaging a 29-10-5 on 61 percent true shooting, with three combined blocks and steals, in 39 minutes per game during these playoffs. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has finished a playoff run posting that line so efficiently.
James came closest at the peak of his powers in 2012, and he is still the best counter to anyone declaring Leonard the most reliable playoff performer alive right now. The Lakers star is averaging a 26-10-10 on 68 percent true shooting, with two combined blocks and steals, in 34 minutes through seven playoff games — remarkable at any age, let alone three months removed from his 36th birthday. That he remains among the most athletic players in the league is a marvel, but he has clearly lost a step on both sides of the ball.
The Lakers are as reliant on Anthony Davis late in games as they are James, if not more. Davis has certainly been more reliable in the clutch. This is more evident on the Bucks, who have begun to shy away from Antetokounmpo in favor of Khris Middleton creating late offense. In the playoffs, Leonard has scored 17 (6-11 FG) of his team’s 47 points when the score is within five in the final five minutes, assisting on eight more. James and Antetokounmpo have scored three (1-4 FG) of their teams’ 38 points, assisting on four more.
Defensively, James spent more time on 36-year-old Portland Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony than anyone else in the first round. He guarded Blazers star Damian Lillard for just nine possessions in their four games against each other. That has increased slightly to 10 possessions in two games opposite Houston Rockets star James Harden. Far more often, he is hidden on a spot-up shooter, like Robert Covington or P.J. Tucker, partly because James does his best work as a help defender (given his profound understanding of opposing teams’ offensive playbooks), but mostly because he can get spun by quicker playmakers.
Likewise, the bulk of Antetokounmpo’s defensive work against Miami has come opposite Jae Crowder, who the Bucks star can shade to help protect the rim. (And Crowder has made him pay.) Antetokounmpo has spent only 10 possessions on Butler, allowing eight points on six shots, per Second Spectrum. It was Butler who evaded Antetokounmpo to put the Heat up five with 3:27 left in Game 3, declaring, “He can’t guard me.” He was far more complimentary of Antetokounmpo’s help defense after scoring 40 points in Game 1.
Meanwhile, Leonard spent more time on Dallas Mavericks wunderkind Luka Doncic than anyone else in their opening-round series. If you believe that positional matchups dictated why Leonard spent more time on the opposing team’s best player, consider James and Antetokounmpo barely saw any time opposite Doncic during the regular season. That responsibility fell on Danny Green and Wesley Matthews instead. Also, Leonard has split time on Murray with Paul George in the second round. Other players of Leonard’s caliber simply do not carry the same two-way responsibility. He is the most dependable closer in the game.
Yet, Leonard’s playoff performance has barely made a blip. Murray, Doncic and Donovan Mitchell have seized a majority of the praiseful headlines. The failures of Antetokounmpo and Harden have garnered a bulk of the negative attention. In between are Leonard and James, two generational talents who split their two Finals meetings, back when James was in his late 20s. Leonard is still that young now, with his sights set on matching the number of championships and Finals MVPs James has won in his legendary career.
The discussion about Leonard’s standing among the all-time greats can wait until after the Finals. James may well get a chance to regain his throne as the best closer alive right now in a Western Conference finals featuring the Lakers and Clippers, but that moniker still belongs to Leonard, whose encore to last year’s championship campaign has provided no indication he intends to release his considerable grip on the title.
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