Following a pair of frosty outings to open the 2015-16 NBA season after eight months away due to knee surgery, 10-time All Star Carmelo Anthony got hot on Saturday, pouring in 37 points in a win over the Washington Wizards that he'd later say he had circled on his calendar due to some offseason chirping by Wizards forward Jared Dudley. 'Melo hoped to carry his newfound rhythm over into Monday's matchup with the San Antonio Spurs.
There was just one problem: he wasn't being defended by Dudley anymore.
Instead, 'Melo would match wits with Kawhi Leonard, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best perimeter defenders of recent vintage. At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, the 24-year-old Leonard has the size to contend with Anthony's preferred brand of bully ball, the foot speed to stay step for step with him off the dribble, the wingspan to contest his jumper and the patience to wait out Anthony's array of jab steps and feints before pouncing on the actual action.
Leonard used all those tools on Monday, clamping down and holding Anthony to 19 points on 4-for-17 shooting in 35 1/2 minutes. 'Melo made just one of 12 contested shots in the Knicks' 94-84 loss, according to NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data.
Anthony credited the Spurs' team defense for "loading up" to dampen his production — “They send you right down to Tim Duncan and hope you can make something happen,” he said after the game, according to Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. For the bulk of their shared floor time, though, Leonard was not only the first line of defense against Anthony, but the only one San Antonio needed.
Leonard put his massive fingerprints on the matchup early, blocking 'Melo's fadeaway jumper:
That definitely got Anthony's attention:
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Leonard would notch an even more dispiriting denial soon after, straight-up snatching the ball out of 'Melo's hands as he readied a layup attempt at the rim:
... which would be impressive enough on its own, even if he hadn't just done nearly the exact same thing to Kevin freaking Durant on opening night:
Leonard would finish the game with four blocked shots, giving him eight in four games, and they've been pretty impressive swats, to boot:
Leonard ripped the ball from Anthony's grasp again late in the fourth quarter, on a scary play under the basket that saw 'Melo land in a heap on the head of Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis:
After a few tense moments, the 7-foot-3 Latvian rookie got up and headed back to the locker room on his own steam. He didn't return, finishing with 13 points, 14 rebounds, three steals, two blocks, an assist and a couple of impressive highlights in 24 minutes of playing time. Thankfully, a concussion was ruled out, and Porzingis is listed as probable for Wednesday's meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers with a strained neck.
Anthony just couldn't shake Leonard, on or off the ball. Kawhi kept playing Anthony's high side whenever another Knick had possession, staying connected and reaching one long arm across Anthony's face and chest to try to prevent easy entry passes. He kept his hands up and active when Anthony did get the ball, and worked hard to fight over the top of screens to ensure a path to contesting every attempt.
Even when beaten off the bounce, Leonard stays locked in when trailing the play, making sure his man knows he's lurking on his hip, just waiting to disrupt the play from behind. He's always on balance, always crouched and ready to pounce, always throwing well-timed poke checks at the ball when his man's facing up, aiming to either deflect the ball away for a steal or just disrupt his mark's rhythm, rag some time off the shot clock and prevent his opponent from getting comfortable. Kawhi Leonard lives to make scorers uncomfortable.
After meeting with failure when testing Leonard while he was set and prepared for battle, with help defense loaded up in case of emergency, Anthony at times attempted to attack early in hopes of catching Kawhi off-guard. Kawhi doesn't really do off-guard, though; he just slides his feet, takes away your angle and lets you flail away:
Of course, being one of the league's premier one-on-one players, 'Melo was still able to knock a couple down against Leonard. Earning those buckets, though, meant some awfully tough sledding.
Look where Kawhi is on this shot, after stalling Anthony's attempt to penetrate from the right elbow, and look how 'Melo has to contort and alter his angle to get the shot away:
You could argue that Leonard's physicality crossed the line on this play and that 'Melo should've headed to the charity stripe after coming up through Leonard's chest to rise and fire, but you tend to get the benefit of the doubt when you're damn near always where you're supposed to be on defense. Great shotmakers can finish these sorts of looks, but they won't do so all the time, and creating them in the first place represents a big win for the defense.
Leonard's in the business of racking up those Ws on a nightly basis these days, no matter the opponent.
Tilt the math your way on enough possessions, and even great scorers start to lose heart.
The approach worked, to some degree — Anthony got himself to the stripe 12 times, earning 10 of his 19 points there — but regardless, that's how good Kawhi Leonard is right now. He's making 10-time All-Stars and scoring champions say, "Screw it, my stuff's just not going to work tonight."
Some folks (including me) had concerns as to how San Antonio's D would hold up after trading valuable interior defender Tiago Splitter this summer to create the cap space to sign All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. So far, so good: the Spurs have held opponents to just 90.5 points per 100 possessions overall through four games, and have been even stingier — just 86.4 points-per-100 allowed — when Leonard's in the game to be the tip of Gregg Popovich's spear.
And, lest we forget, Leonard's doing that while continuing to take on a larger offensive role, scoring 18 points on 50 percent shooting, grabbing 14 rebounds, and adding two steals and an assist to his four blocks in 36 minutes against the Knicks.
Those numbers aren't as eye-popping as what he managed on opening night, but the all-around effort was just as impressive, if not more so.
“It’s easy to talk great about him when he scores 32 like he did in Oklahoma City,” veteran guard Manu Ginobili, who talked his way out of scheduled rest and finished with seven points and three assists, told McDonald of the Express-News after the game. “Today, he might have been even better.”
Leonard, of course, would probably agree. I mean, San Antonio lost that game and won this one.
I recently wrote that Stephen Curry, the NBA's reigning MVP, is the scariest single figure in the sport right now; his performance in the Golden State Warriors' absurd 50-point blowout of the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday did little to dissuade me of that opinion. While most of the dissenting opinions that came my way favored established quantities like former MVPs LeBron James and Kevin Durant, or all-but-crowned future MVP Anthony Davis, one voice rang out Tuesday:
To be clear, nobody's on Steph's level right now, and you'd like to see Leonard establish himself as a top offensive option over a longer stretch of time before firmly entrenching him in that category. That said, a version of Kawhi that averages 21 points and nine boards a game while still locking up elite scorers like this sure as hell seems like one of only a precious few talents in the league capable of giving the game's best players and coaches insomnia.
“It is something I want to do," Leonard said of his work on Anthony, Durant and others, according to Daniel Popper of the New York Daily News. "I like guarding the best player.”
Well, we're glad someone's enjoying it. Opposing scorers and their fans sure as heck aren't.
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