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Playoffs 2019

NBA Playoffs 2019: Kawhi Leonard’s simple but effective playmaking in one possession

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Kawhi Leonard (NBA Getty Images)

If there's one weakness in Kawhi Leonard's offensive game, it's that he's not known to be a great playmaker for others. But you wouldn't know that based on how he played in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, as he dished out nine assists in a comeback win for the Toronto Raptors.

In addition to it being the most on the team, it was the most assists Leonard has ever had in a single game in his NBA career, regular season or playoffs. With each of them leading to a 3-pointer, Leonard scored or assisted on 67 of Toronto's 105 points (63.8 percent) in the game, all while committing a series-low one turnover.

"Just got to give credit to my teammates. They knocked down shots tonight when I gave it to them," Leonard said when asked about his passing post-game. "I'm not a guy that really controls the ball the whole game - pretty much can play off the ball, with the ball in my hands.

"Just trying to give other people opportunities to shine and just not try to be the dominant ball player."

None of the passes Leonard made in Game 5 were particularly difficult, but they didn't need to be to punish the Milwaukee Bucks for the way they were defending him. As Giannis Antetokounmpo explained after Game 4, the Bucks are focused on making other players on the Raptors beat them by "being aggressive defensively on Kawhi" to "try to limit his shots."

That aggression leads to plays like this, in which four defenders collapse to the paint to give Brook Lopez the help he needs to prevent Leonard from scoring in isolation:

The read from there is simple - a kickout to Fred VanVleet, who wisely relocates from the corner to the wing to give Leonard a better passing angle and force his defender, Eric Bledsoe, to cover more ground when he recovers.

He doesn't even deliver an accurate pass, but VanVleet is still able to get off a clean look before Bledsoe can close out on him because of how much attention Leonard draws on the drive. It was one of the seven 3-pointers VanVleet made in the game, marking a new career-high for the Rockford, Illinois native.

Most of Leonard's assists in Game 5 came on those sorts of plays, with him breaking a defender down off the dribble - often against a mismatch following a switch - and kicking it out to an open teammate. In total, the Raptors were 9-for-12 from the 3-point line off of passes made by Leonard, per NBA.com. VanVleet was a perfect 4-for-4, Pascal Siakam was 2-for-4, Norman Powell was 1-for-2, and both Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry were 1-for-1.

"Any time [Leonard] chooses to get the rest of us involved, it's going to bode well for our offense," VanVleet said after the game. "The rest of us just got to be ready to step up and knock them down."

Those same passes were available in Games 1 and 2 of this series, but Leonard didn't always make the simple play, choosing instead to take on multiple defenders himself. It resulted in him averaging 2.0 assists and 7.0 potential assists compared to 5.0 assists and 10.3 potential assists in the three games since.

For example, look at how open Lowry is on this possession from Game 1:

Or how open Powell is on this possession from Game 2:

Both of those plays ended the same way, with Leonard taking on Lopez - one of the best rim protectors in the league - and missing tough shots around the paint.

Did Leonard not make those passes because he didn't see the open player or was it because he had lost some of the faith in his teammates? It's hard to say. There's no denying that Leonard doesn't see the floor as well as some other superstars such as LeBron James or James Harden, but the likes of Lowry, Powell and Gasol have had their ups-and-downs this postseason. Not only have they struggled to knock down shots consistently, they've been reluctant to take them at times, even wide open ones.

Whatever the case may be, Leonard shined as a facilitator in Game 5 and the Raptors are now one win away from making the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

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