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The Warriors Still Have No Answer for Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard opened the Chase Center much like he closed down Oracle Arena: By baffling the Warriors and handing them a loss and a helpless feeling.
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SAN FRANCISCO — At the illustrious regular–season opening of the Chase Center, the $500 million chateau the Warriors built on the San Francisco waterfront, the team introduced, individually, six coaches and 14 players—none of whom had any chance of slowing down Kawhi Leonard. Glenn Robinson III was asked to try.

The assignment came by process of elimination. When Golden State last met Leonard in the NBA Finals, primary defensive responsibilities fell to Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. One watched Thursday’s game from the Warrior bench in a well-tailored suit. The other, at most, may have flipped past the broadcast from his couch at home. Only a few pillars remain from last season’s dynastic superteam. Everything else must be rebuilt from scratch.

Robinson is a product of that broader organizational effort. What financial flexibility the Warriors could muster in the offseason—managed only by trading Iguodala’s $17 million contract—went toward acquiring All-Star guard D’Angelo Russell. For all of his playmaking talents, Russell’s arrival did nothing for Golden State’s vacated perimeter defense. The responsibility, then, falls to relatively young or unproven players on budget salaries. Players like Robinson, who has bounced around from bench to bench since his selection in the second round of the 2014 draft.

Starting at small forward for the Warriors is a prime opportunity that, in games like this one, can lead to all manner of discomfort. Robinson understands this implicitly. “I've guarded a lot of elite players,” Robinson said. “You're really not gonna hold them.” This is the first rule of defense, fashioned in part so working basketball professionals can sleep at night. Scorers like Leonard are inevitable. They will get to their spots and find their shots. The only control a defender really has is reflected through inconvenience.

Kawhi Leonard

“They get so many screens, they get so many opportunities with the ball that they're gonna make something happen,” Robinson said of Leonard and his superstar peers. “But just trying to pressure them. Trying to get them tired throughout the game. Just doing what I can to affect his rhythm, affect his shot.”

Robinson, at 6’6’’ with a 6’10’’ wingspan, did his best to interject whenever Leonard was in control Thursday. If Leonard brought the ball up the floor, Robinson met him in the backcourt to challenge his progress. If the reigning Finals MVP tried to break him down off the dribble, Robinson hung in place through crossover after crossover. Even when Leonard’s shoulder became a battering ram, Robinson fought through the contact and tried to stay in his immediate sphere. It worked about as well as could be expected for a 25-year-old cast-off standing in the way of one of the game’s best players.

“I thought Glenn competed and did a good job,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, politely. “Kawhi's a handful, obviously. Glenn gave us some good minutes.” It speaks to the Warriors’ predicament that "good minutes" are all they can really hope for. It wasn’t long ago that Golden State, with its eye to the playoffs, was just trying to get through the regular season. The new Warriors are just trying to make it through the day. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green offer a fundamental stability. Yet there is something foreboding in the fact that Curry, at a stately 31, is somehow the oldest player on the roster.

“When you have as many young guys as we do, there's gonna be a lot of situational stuff they haven't seen and they don't recognize,” Kerr warned. Robinson’s defense on Leonard, for example, can only be as effective as the team’s collective containment of Leonard’s work in the pick-and-roll. It was there that the Warriors' defense truly disintegrated. Golden State responded to most of the screens for Leonard by bringing two defenders to the ball. “Steve Kerr's a good coach,” Leonard said. “Obviously they're gonna try to get the ball out of my hands—same thing we do for Steph Curry and D'Angelo Russell.” Only without their usual cast of veteran defenders to zone up the remaining space, the Warrior defense sprung devastating leaks. 

Leonard simply wrapped a pass around his defenders to Montrezl Harrell, standing right under the rim. A basic screen set for Leonard by Landry Shamet resulted in an uncontested three. Golden State had little choice but to use well-studied bigs like Green and Kevon Looney to crowd Kawhi, yet in doing so presented different means for the same destruction. Part of what makes the prospect of defending the Clippers’ new centerpiece so daunting is that he refuses to be anything but methodical. Maybe an opponent can interrupt the rhythm of his game, but they cannot rush it; each move and dribble happens in its own time. Then, with a simple prod, Leonard can expose a defense for its greatest defect.

Sometimes the most devastating thing a star can do is show that he doesn’t have to score. The power of Kawhi Leonard was expressed through Ivica Zubac, Patrick Patterson, and JaMychal Green in the Clippers' 141-122 rout. “His passing ability is unbelievable,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. Still he chipped in points here and there for good measure, nudging his team along. It took all of 21 minutes for Leonard to put together 21 points and a career-best nine assists, in a run that coincided with the Clippers blistering the Warriors by a 27-point margin. Then he sat, midway through the third quarter, as there was no more left to do.