Kawhi Leonard picked a prime spot to unleash perhaps the best pass of his career.
There was a moment in Wednesday's game where the Boston Celtics looked like they were getting ready to make a big run.
The Toronto Raptors were still up by double figures at the midpoint of the third quarter, but the Celtics were starting to chip away at the lead following a miserable second quarter in which they completely fell apart on offence. A layup from Jayson Tatum with 5:31 remaining in the period extended their run to 17-12, cutting a 21-point halftime deficit to a more manageable 16 with momentum on Boston's side.
Then came the pass, a dime from Leonad that sparked a huge Raptors run which ended any hopes of a Celtics comeback.
MORE: Four takeaways from the Raptors win
Leonard found himself being guarded by Kyrie Irving after Tatum's layup and took full advantage of the mismatch by handing the ball off to Kyle Lowry at half court and waving off a screen from Pascal Siakam to establish himself up in the post, where he's been an absolute force this season.
In doing so, the Celtics had to make two important rotations.
First, Al Horford helped off of Serge Ibaka on the baseline for a brief second while the ball was still en route to Leonard to prevent him from making a quick move to the basket.
Marcus Morris then helped off of Siakam in the corner to cover for Horford and prevent Ibaka from getting a layup or dunk.
Averaging a career-high 26.8 points per game, Leonard has seen a fair share of double and triple teams this season. We even broke down a pass he made earlier in the season in an almost identical situation that showed why he's a leading MVP candidate because of how the threat of his scoring opens up opportunities for his teammates.
The difference between that pass and this one is Leonard didn't just recognize the double team, he picked it apart.
Rather than making an immediate pass, Leonard held on to the ball for a couple of seconds to see what Horford and Morris would do next. Once it was clear that they weren't going to leave the paint, Leonard rifled a pass over both of them to Siakam in the opposite corner.
Horford ran out to contest the shot, but Siakam had all the space he needed to drain his fourth and final 3-pointer of the game. It started what became a 17-6 run for the Raptors, giving them a commanding 27-point lead over the Celtics heading into the fourth quarter.
If there was one knock on Leonard entering this season, it's that he's never been much of a playmaker for others. It hasn't prevented him from becoming one of the league's best offensive players, but it gives something teams can exploit in the postseason.
Instead of letting Leonard get to his spots as a scorer, teams will likely throw multiple defenders at him with greater frequency in an effort to take the ball out of his hands and force other players to beat them, primarily from the perimeter, where the Raptors have struggled in losses so far this season.
It's why passes like the one Leonard made on Wednesday are so important for both his development and the team's. Not only is it a side of Leonard's game that we rarely saw during his time with the San Antonio Spurs, it's one we haven't seen much of this season.
"I don't think he's been in this situation as much, where he's got the ball and he's trying to figure out where the pieces are moving, and seeing so many bodies come at him, and having to find it," Nick Nurse recently told Blake Murphy of The Athletic.
"He kind of played, he was rusty, then he started scoring. And then teams all of a sudden started sending multiple people at him, and he didn't do a great job of getting it out of there. And then all of a sudden he started figuring that out."
His teammates are still going to have to make open shots, but the improvements Leonard has made as a facilitator should lead to the types of high percentage looks the Raptors need to make that scheme ineffective in the playoffs.
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