Kawhi Leonard has lost a playoff series in his career. It's been a while, but it has happened. Six times to be exact.
If you only care about the series he actually played in, however, that number is just five. Four, if you don't include the one where he only played three quarters before being injured in a way that rule now exists to prevent. If you only look at the time period since he became an All-Star, that number falls to just one.
It has been 51 months since Leonard was on the losing side of a series he fully participated in. Since he developed into a superstar, Kawhi Leonard has been the best playoff player in the world.
Leonard's ascendance into playoff domination is a yearly tradition. We know it's coming. We bake it into our expectations of both him and his team but it has become so anticipated that we run the risk of taking it for granted. We can't overlook Leonard turning into the best basketball player in the league…again.
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These playoffs have already had some incredible performances. Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray duelled it out in one of the most legendary first rounds the league has ever season. At the same time, Luka Doncic cemented himself as the best 21-year-old in basketball history.
Meanwhile, Leonard ho-hummed his way to 32.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.3 steals for an entire series. His performance was justifiably overshadowed by said 21-year-old superstar, but it was relegated even further by Paul George's struggles and Marcus Morris' penchant for conflict.
Leonard's playoff greatness is so expected it can lack for drama. That doesn't mean we should skip past it.
Defensively, he looks as good as he has in years. Toronto's championship defence had fewer weak spots than just about any in recent memory, yet Leonard looks even more engaged on that end now than he did a year ago.
His passing and ability to captain an offense is unquestionably at the highest level it has ever been. The 5.2 assists he averaged against Dallas is the most he's ever averaged in a series in his career. He has more weapons around him than ever but Leonard's ability to see the entire floor and find the open man is lightyears ahead of where it was earlier in his career.
The @LAClippers advance as Kawhi Leonard becomes the first player to go for 30+ PTS, 10+ REB, 5+ AST and 5+ STL in an #NBAPlayoffs game since Gary Payton in 2000.- NBA (@NBA) August 31, 2020
33 PTS | 14 REB | 7 AST | 5 STL pic.twitter.com/LsVno6yhfA
That said, the true transcendence of Leonard's game has come as a scorer. His improvement cannot be overstated. Not in comparing him now to when he entered the league, that development is obvious. His strides from where he was even a couple seasons ago is just as momentous.
Leonard rarely comes up when discussing the most unguardable players in the league but he should. He's stronger than just about any wing and quicker than any big man. His turnaround isn't flashy but approaches unstoppable. It looks mechanical at times, like it's programmed to fly on a direct line to the back of the rim with no deviation.
Against the Mavericks, every two-point shot Leonard took seemed to have that certainty, not just the turnaround. His 32.8 ppg in that series was his second-highest average for any series in his career, trailing only last season's legendary performance against Philadelphia.
Even with those incredible numbers, Leonard's perimeter shot still waxed and waned over the course of the series. He shot just 29.4 percent from three and 33.3 percent on long twos against the Mavericks, but it didn't matter one bit.
There was no stopping him when he decided to attack Dallas' defence. He got the ball around the perimeter, sized up his man, got to his spot and scored. It was an inevitability. His efficiency in movement was incredible and deadly in its simplicity.
He shot 58-for-90 (64.4 percent) on shots from within 20 feet in that series; a truly unbelievable number for a consistent diet of those shots. Every time Leonard took a shot from within 20 feet in the series, it was nearly as efficient as Steph Curry taking a three-pointer - and that's before factoring in his 55 free throw attempts.
Analytics merely provide suggestions for which areas on the floor are generally the most efficient. For an average NBA player, that typically means fewer mid-range shots and more layups and threes.
That guideline doesn't apply to Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard is so deadly in the mid-range that he is a rare exception to the rules we often foolishly deem universal. He breaks the mould of an average NBA player. He is that good.
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There's little reason to think this trend won't continue in round two. Jamal Murray had a truly historic series against the Jazz but the Nuggets had absolutely no answer for Donovan Mitchell on the other end. As good as Mitchell is, Leonard and the Clippers present an entirely more dangerous level of mismatch for Denver's defence.
Leonard's approach to the regular season will always make him difficult to parse in historical contexts but his playoff resume is unassailable. History has shown this version of Leonard at full strength is nearly impossible to beat four times out of seven.
The only proven Kawhi-stopper is injury or fatigue, and he's shown no sign of slowing down.
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