Kawhi Leonard is averaging 40 points per game on 61.7 percent shooting through the first two games of the Sixers’ series against the Raptors.
He is, despite the Sixers’ Game 2 win in Toronto, an unavoidable, extremely talented problem.
Let’s look at how the Sixers have defended Leonard and whether there's anything they can do better.
Making other guys beat you
Leonard’s patience is one of his best qualities. He faced up against Tobias Harris on this play from Game 1, drove baseline and spun back toward the middle, where Boban Marjanovic had shuffled over, apparently to double team him. But Leonard, rather than kicking the ball out to Marc Gasol behind the arc, kept his dribble alive, waited for Marjanovic to abort the double team and knocked down a jumper over Harris.
The Sixers took time away from Leonard by doubling him when he got post position in Game 2. Greg Monroe’s double team forced Leonard to kick the ball out to Gasol on the play below and Ben Simmons rotated over brilliantly to get a piece of Danny Green’s jumper.
Simmons ... and friends
Without a doubt, the Sixers’ best individual defender against Leonard has been Simmons. Leonard has shot 12 for 25 when guarded by Simmons and 17 for 22 when guarded by other Sixers, per NBA.com/Stats.
Simmons’ length and lateral quickness occasionally seem to perturb Leonard, something that doesn’t happen very often.
The solution for the Sixers, however, isn’t as simple as sticking Simmons on Leonard, the rare player who can grab a rebound, attack Simmons, and score through the 6-foot-10, 230-pound obstacle in front of him.
Brett Brown told reporters after Game 1 he wanted the Sixers to show "crowds" to Leonard. Though Simmons does an excellent job staying on Leonard’s hip on the play below, James Ennis ensures he’s not alone in trying to slow down Leonard on the fast break.
Varied pick-and-roll coverages
The Sixers have aimed to tailor their pick-and-roll coverages against Leonard to best suit their personnel. When JJ Redick is involved, he’s hedged the screen hard and then recovered. It’s a smart approach because it causes Leonard to temporarily encounter an extra defender, and because Green isn’t a threat as a roller.
Here, Redick hedges, Harris drops down to pick up the rolling Green, and Simmons stays with Leonard. Gasol is open on the left elbow because of Harris’ help on Green, but Leonard settles for a contested three-pointer.
Below is another example of the Sixers’ pick-and-roll coverage with Redick. Embiid takes the rolling Green on this play, and the Raptors’ guard finds Pascal Siakam for a corner three.
If you’re nitpicking, you could say Harris should have stayed attached to Siakam for the entire play and not initially shaded over toward Green. Still, that’s not bad execution by the Sixers — they’d prefer a contested three from Siakam over Leonard having the ball in his hands.
Embiid plays drop coverage on pick-and-rolls with Leonard, taking a couple steps back into the paint and giving Leonard’s defender time to recover if he falls behind. And if, after the screen, Leonard drives in the direction of a defender on the wing, the Sixers would generally be wise to send additional help, as Simmons does on the play below. Leonard has no choice but to pass it out to Gasol, a win for the Sixers.
Leonard’s defender has the freedom to guard him aggressively on pick-and-rolls involving Embiid, with the knowledge that he has an excellent rim protector as insurance. Because Embiid is looming and has the ability to alter Leonard’s shot, it doesn’t matter that Butler fails to navigate over the top of Gasol's screen.
The same principles shouldn't apply when Embiid is occupied on the perimeter (or on the bench). Butler's failure to get over Serge Ibaka's screen is more damaging when Jonah Bolden is the other defender involved in the pick-and-roll and when Embiid is, at least initially, concerned with the action behind the arc on the left side of the floor.
The Sixers need Leonard’s man to play the pick-and-roll more conservatively in that situation, with the understanding that Bolden — or any big man besides Embiid, for that matter — is a vulnerable target if required to switch on to Leonard.
Brown’s tweaks to the Sixers’ defense on Leonard in Game 2 were sharp, and yet the Raptors’ star scored 35 points. But by working to take time and space away from Leonard, further honing their pick-and-roll coverage to best suit the players on the floor, and using Simmons as his primary defender, the Sixers have a shot to neutralize Leonard.
If anything, they could lean even further into the principles of showing him a crowd and helping off his teammates whenever it’s remotely feasible. While the Sixers know Leonard can beat them, they can’t yet say the same for the other members of the Raptors.
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