There’s some logic in the thought that it doesn’t matter how many good players you have just as long as you have the best player. The NBA is a sport dominated by its mononymous stars. Magic. Bird. LeBron. KD. Even with Boston’s impressive collection of talent, versatility, and depth, would it even matter against the defending Eastern Conference champions Toronto Raptors after they added arguably one of the top-5 players in the league in Kawhi Leonard? For one night in mid-October, it didn’t.
Kawhi didn’t finish with a particularly eye-opening stat line of 31 points and 10 rebounds. He was inefficient shooting 10-of-25 from the field, but he hit all nine free throws and finished the night with only three turnovers. After the game, Brad Stevens said of the Celtics’ defense against the newest Raptor:
Stevens on defending Kawhi: "I think anytime he goes through you to try to score, I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong coverage-wise. I think when he gets to the rim uncontested or you’re fouling him, then I think we’ve got to do a little bit better."— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) October 20, 2018
Early in the game, Toronto had Leonard in a ball handler/playmaker role, running a lot of pick-and-roll with Raptors bigs. He had mixed success, once finding Ibaka with a perfect pocket pass and muscling Gordon Hayward for a layup.
But for the most part, the Celtics were able to contain Kawhi. Through the first half, he shot a miserable 3-for-11 and Boston built their lead up to 7-8 points several times. In PnR’s, they could key in a second defender and limit him to contested mid-range shots. If he faced up and ISO’d, they could run another player at him to chip his drives.
Let’s check on that Brad Stevens checklist. “Anytime he goes through you to try to score, I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong coverage-wise.” Check. The Celtics weren’t exactly double-teaming him--they rarely do for anyone--but if they could limit his space or disrupt his timing with another body, they did. That changed somewhat after halftime.
To start the second half, head coach Nick Nurse put Leonard in space off ball with Serge Ibaka and Danny Green running a weak side pick-and-roll. The action tilts Jaylen Brown just enough that Kawhi can face up and attack the wide open key without Horford to guide him away from the paint or protect the rim.
They also put him in the post. Nurse knows Boston’s defensive philosophy against post-ups: back-to-the-basket isolations are low percentage shots and they’ll give it to you in single coverage almost every time. Kawhi burned both a smaller Kyrie and Hayward on the block.
“Anytime he goes through you to try to score, I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong coverage-wise.” That still held true in the 3rd and 4th quarters, but Kawhi just beat them. He scored 22 points including seven in the final frame. The Celtics won’t change much going forward with their defensive scheme for Leonard. He’s a mismatch for any defender. This was just one of those games where both teams played well enough to win but a few more shots going down in the clutch and home court advantage eked it out for Toronto. The Celtics play Kawhi and the Raptors again in Boston on November 16th.