The Triple Team: Andy Larsen’s analysis of Kawhi Leonard’s 45 points pushing Raptors over Jazz

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) scores against the Utah Jazz during the second half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019, in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 122-116 loss to the Toronto Raptors from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Kawhi Leonard gets career-high 45

Kawhi Leonard was so impressive, scoring a career-high 45 points to really carry the Raptors to the six-point victory. Somehow, he scored 45 without hitting a single three, just making 16 of his 19 twos and making 13 of his 17 free throws. Here’s his shot chart:


Which is more impressive, the 8-10 from mid-range or the 8-9 from around the rim? I’d have to say the former, given the shots he was taking. Leonard had the turnaround fadeaway jumper, the mid-range floater, and just the straight pull-up all working tonight.

But the rim finishing was just as good, with numerous tough reverse finishes around Rudy Gobert. I mean, this is incredible:

The Jazz did really try everything: they had Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, Jae Crowder and Dante Exum try their hand at guarding him, and he still scored regardless for layups and free throws. Maybe the only thing that really worked to stop Kawhi was what they did at the end of the game, which was just straight double-teaming him. Except that strategy, as it usually does, had consequences in open shots for teammates, and missed defensive rebounds from the Jazz just being so far away from the rim.

“He scored in the post, he scored in isolations, he scored at the rim over Rudy,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said. “We eventually started hitting him at half court. The biggest thing was that we sent him to the line. ... Maybe we should have blitzed him sooner.”

But really, this was about Kawhi stepping up when his team needed him, in the wake of Kyle Lowry’s injury. He’s a top-5 NBA player.

2. Jazz avoided turnovers. How much does that matter?

The Jazz didn’t shoot the ball well from anywhere on Tuesday night, including below league average percentages from the rim, mid-range, and 3-point shots. And yet, they still scored 117 points per 100 possessions, a really good total. How?

Well, they just took care of the ball. They had only four turnovers all night, and when you’re getting a shot up on essentially every possession, you’re still going to score a lot of points even if you miss most of those shots.

I think that turnovers have been an underrated part of the story for the Jazz this year offensively. Coming into tonight, the Jazz had committed the third-most turnovers in the league, on 14 percent of their possessions. The only worse teams were Phoenix and Atlanta, two young teams that should be making mistakes. The Jazz shouldn’t be, at least not on this level.

Now, I’ve heard the argument — most notably from David Locke, Jazz radio play-by-play man — that turnovers aren’t really correlated with winning to a large enough degree for you to take major steps to prevent them. And that’s true. I did a study last year where I looked at how teams perform while reaching various benchmarks of turnovers, and it turns out that it’s pretty flat.

If your team's TOV% is higher than this TOV% If your team's TOV% is lower than this TOV%
TOV% Wins Losses Win % % of games TOV% Wins Losses Win% % of games
6 8250 8279 50% 99% 6 120 90 57% 1%
7 8095 8163 50% 97% 7 274 207 57% 3%
8 7832 7961 50% 94% 8 539 409 57% 6%
9 7382 7665 49% 90% 9 988 704 58% 10%
10 6753 7154 49% 83% 10 1621 1216 57% 17%
11 5942 6481 48% 74% 11 2431 1891 56% 26%
12 5020 5702 47% 64% 12 3352 2668 56% 36%
13 4072 4752 46% 53% 13 4298 3618 54% 47%
14 3127 3804 45% 41% 14 5243 4567 53% 59%
15 2273 2932 44% 31% 15 6098 5441 53% 69%
16 1554 2172 42% 22% 16 6816 6197 52% 78%
17 1007 1497 40% 15% 17 7362 6873 52% 85%
18 623 980 39% 10% 18 7747 7389 51% 90%
19 362 609 37% 6% 19 8008 7760 51% 94%
20 193 366 35% 3% 20 8177 8005 51% 97%
21 108 224 33% 2% 21 8262 8146 50% 98%
25 5 21 19% 0% 25 8365 8348 50% 100%

In games in which one team had a turnover percentage of six percent or less (which only happens in 1 percent of games), those teams won the game only 57 percent of the time. Of course, the Jazz lost tonight, though it was because of their defense. And in fact, the Jazz have more turnovers in their wins than in their losses this year, though only by a fraction: 15.8 to 15.3 per game.

Tuesday night’s contest can be used as proof of either argument. Either the Jazz had a good offensive night because they took care of the ball despite missing shots, or the Jazz didn’t get very good looks because they didn’t make the kind of risky passes sometimes necessary to get those good looks.

Dennis Lindsey talked to me about turnovers in November. Then, he said, “At times the risk to create the shot can be high. So when you do make interior passes, turnovers happen. So what type of turnovers are we willing to accept? To me, [interior pass turnovers] are acceptable, because Rudy and Derrick are such formidable finishers,” Lindsey said. "The ones where either our energy is lazy or our footwork is lazy, or our passing technique is not good, or it’s an initiation pass where we don’t locate the defense up in the high-quadrant, there’s no way to set our defense. And those are unacceptable, and things that we have to own and get better.”

That approach makes sense, and the lack of “bad turnovers” on Tuesday was encouraging no matter what philosophy you believe in.

3. Late whistles

This right here might be the end of me.

Why does Mark Lindsay wait until the shot has bounced off the rim to blow his whistle? Whether or not the shot goes in is irrelevant to whether or not illegal contact occurred on the shot attempt.

Here’s another example, also with Lindsay:

The ball is this time even in Gobert’s hands, the Jazz have already started a fast break!

You can argue over whether or not these are fouls. The first one, Favors looks to have jumped pretty vertically to me, but maybe “pretty vertically” isn’t enough if they’re looking for exact verticality. And on the second one, Gobert does make contact in a non-legal guarding position by extending his arm towards Pascal Siakam.

But when the whistle is blown so late, it makes it look as if the officials are taking into account the result of the play, rather than the contact as it occurs. And the optics of officiating are actually pretty important to keeping the focus on the players, which is what everybody wants.

Two truths: NBA referees are frustrating. But as anyone who’s ever watched basketball in other leagues around the world knows, they’re also by far the best in the business.