Kawhi Leonard’s highlights aren’t typically of the jump-out-of-the-building-and-throw-it-down variety. The beauty of his game is in all the nuances.
The Jazz may have earned a 105-90 victory Tuesday night against the Raptors at Vivint Smart Home Arena, but they got smacked in the face with Leonard’s subtlety along the way.
The scariest part?
“I still got a ways to go,” Leonard repeated several times afterward.
The two-time Defensive Player of the Year and former NBA Finals MVP did not take the court after halftime. Didn’t need to. Not after putting up 17 points on 6-for-12 shooting, five rebounds, and one steal, and attempting eight free throws in 18 first-half minutes.
Anyone wondering if he was back to form after playing just nine games a year ago in a bizarre, lost season with the Spurs can stop.
The skill that made him arguably one of the league’s top-five players was all on display Tuesday, no matter who was guarding him.
Leonard took a dribble handoff beyond the 3-point line, spun past Royce O’Neale into the lane, absorbed the contact from Rudy Gobert and still flipped it into the hoop.
After missing a jumper, he rushed in, ripped away the rebound, then put up a perfectly arched fadeaway that dropped through the net.
Later, he posted up Jae Crowder, faced him up, got him leaping in the air on a textbook ball-fake, accelerated to the hoop, and dropped in a lefty layup while drawing the foul.
“We saw a guy making some really precise offensive moves,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “He got it, he’d make his move, he’d get his man off-balance and he’d get inside, get ’em back on their heels and pull up for the jumper. He got to the free-throw line. He’s got a lot in his one-on-one arsenal, and he showed a bunch of it tonight.”
Thanks in part to Leonard’s exploits, the Raptors started the second quarter on a 25-5 run, to take a 50-36 lead with 4:40 to go before halftime.
With he and many of his fellow starters glued to the bench post-halftime, the Jazz rallied back.
Nurse felt no need to put him back into a meaningless preseason game. He’d seen enough out of his new superstar.
“Yeah, that was a really nice progression. That was a definite kind of leap forward,” he said. “And not surprising [with] the work he’s been putting in. We’ll see a little bit more of that as we go forward here.”
Actually, Leonard said, there’s a lot more room for improvement.
After missing most of last season, forcing his way out of San Antonio via trade, and now adjusting not only to playing again, but also to an almost entirely new set of teammates (Danny Green joined him the swap to the Raptors), he believes there’s plenty more runway to go before he truly achieves takeoff.
“When you don’t play a year, your legs and your body’s not used to NBA games, playing against this competition,” Leonard said. “… Just going out there, trying to learn everybody’s game, see where I need to be in the spots on offense, and also on the defensive end. Today, I’m starting to pick up the offensive side a little bit more, just looking at the flow of the game and where I can attack. I just gotta keep going.”