If what transpired in the final five minutes of San Antonio's closeout game against Golden State on Thursday wasn't wholly unprecedented, it was -- at the very least -- exceptionally rare. With 4:28 remaining in the fourth quarter and his team nursing a mere two-point lead, Gregg Popovich pulled Tim Duncan -- living legend, Defensive Player of the Year candidate and franchise centerpiece -- from the game in order to field a smaller lineup. That decision proved extraordinary in two regards:
• I'm not sure that any other head coach in the league has the capital to get away with that kind of decision, or that many stars would accept that decision as agreeably as Duncan did. Both men are among the best in history at their respective trades, but the bond between them continues to astonish to this very day.
• After a regular season in which San Antonio largely refrained from using small-ball lineups, Popovich chose to employ just such an approach with the game on the line.
The former is a topic for another time -- a fitting subject for an epic tome rather than next-day analysis, brimming with insight on the relationship of two great basketball minds. But the latter is interesting, largely because of the statement it made about this particular series and one particular player. Popovich's reluctance to run small for the length of the regular season was understandable, as those lineups figured to put undue defensive stress on Duncan -- the San Antonio big most qualified to fill out such a lineup. At 37, Duncan is still a phenomenal defender. But his mobility is limited, making it difficult for him to cover, help and rebound in the ways necessary to account for those lineups' shortcomings.
Yet something changed over the course of these six second-round games, to the point that Popovich felt comfortable not only running small, but doing so without Duncan at all. That "something" was Kawhi Leonard -- the 21-year-old forward blossoming into exactly the kind of utility asset the Spurs hoped he might someday become. Leonard has been quite good for most of his two-year NBA career, but in these playoffs he's taken a great, understated leap forward -- an evolution befitting Leonard's stoic, silent demeanor.
In that final 4:28, Leonard guarded Carl Landry, scrambled to help defend Stephen Curry, calmly executed the offense by throwing crisp passes, drew a loose ball foul that pushed the Warriors into the penalty, stepped up to contain Jarrett Jack in the pick-and-roll and nailed a crucial three-pointer that helped put the Warriors away. Yet if anything, that laundry list of contributions grossly undersells what Leonard offers over the course of an entire game or an entire series. He may not create much offense for himself or his teammates, but Leonard's influence on the court is slowly -- and dramatically -- widening, breaking the mold of the archetypal San Antonio role player.
Leonard is often tasked with guarding the best perimeter threats that opposing teams have to offer, be it a point guard, a shooting guard, or his natural positional opposite at small forward. He balances that responsibility with an incredible level of awareness, particularly for player with just two seasons of professional experience. Length and quickness allow him to gamble while still recovering to his assigned mark in time to contest a potential shot (or at least run them off the three-point line), and his sense of timing here speaks to this awareness:
On this particular sequence, Leonard manages to simultaneously guard one of the deadliest shooters on the court while keeping tabs on -- and preemptively helping against -- a double pick-and-roll. Duncan and Splitter both are in motion, thus putting the Spurs in a position of disadvantage. They're ultimately able to recover to their spots to stop Landry just inside the three-point line, and Leonard immediately springs into recovery. If he were to wait even a single beat too long in help position, Thompson would have had an open look at a three-pointer to cut San Antonio's lead to one. Yet with a quick burst of speed and a brilliantly balanced closeout, Leonard closes the gap, makes Thompson put the ball on the floor and saves the play.
His on-ball defense against the Warriors' top scorers was outstanding throughout the series, but it's these kinds of little plays that suggested to Popovich that Leonard might be ready for more small-ball run. Leonard wasn't all that successful in the tiny sliver of time he was used as a small-ball big in the regular season, but his increasingly sophisticated understanding of both team defense and the Spurs' offense has allowed him to become a positionally fluid base for those unexplored lineup possibilities. He can be employed to guard most any player on the court, can space the floor and take advantage of mismatches and -- perhaps most importantly -- has a knack for out-rebounding bigger players:
That talent for getting the best of bigger players on the glass carries over to the offensive end as well, as Leonard complements his already efficient game with the ability to generate extra possessions:
Leonard is technically a wing player by trade, but he transcends that position with his ability to defend point guards and best centers on the glass, becoming something transformational. San Antonio has some capable bigs that mesh well with the team's aims, but each has their flaws and Duncan isn't capable of logging heavy minutes at this stage in his career. He's good for 36 minutes a night, but even that takes its toll; part of the reason why Duncan was pulled from Thursday's game was because he looked a little worn down, so much so that he was making uncharacteristic mistakes and shorting makeable shots. Popovich undoubtedly relishes every opportunity that allows him to rely on Duncan less, and, in this particular series, Leonard provided just such an out.
According to NBA Wowy, in the 52 minutes that the Spurs played with Leonard on the court without Duncan (including that final few minutes of Game 6), they outscored the Warriors by 33.6 points per 100 possessions. That's a blowout margin carried out in short bursts of playing time, possible in part because of the way that Leonard complements bigs like Splitter and Boris Diaw. The offense still funneled through Tony Parker in those scenarios, but Leonard played with maxed-out efficiency (including a 100 percent effective field goal percentage), assisted in San Antonio grabbing 28.6 percent of its own misses and alternated between guarding high-scoring wing players and post-up bigs. His game is the adhesive that made playing without Duncan a far more viable option than it could have been, and in the process helped San Antonio take this series away from an impressive (and scorching) Golden State team.
Memphis will provide a very different challenge in the Western Conference finals, and utilizing Leonard as a small-ball option may not be particularly realistic in that series. As helpful as his shooting might be in spacing out the Grizzlies' smothering defense, asking Leonard to tangle with Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol in the post might be a losing proposition. Nevertheless, the underpinnings of Leonard's versatile game should be no less useful, even as he's featured in more conventional lineups. Small-ball big or not, Leonard is still the adaptable defender, spot shooter, effort rebounder and hard cutter that these Spurs need, and he has proven capable of playing off of most any combination of teammates among San Antonio’s rotation regulars. It’s now up to Popovich to simply select how to best deploy him, and in that take advantage of the luxuries that Leonard’s elastic game provides.