Anyone who watched Leonard during the regular season isn't surprised by his stout defensive sets— defense is what he does. He can score, dish and rebound as well, but foiling opponents' best scorers is what he does best.
Tony Parker (when healthy), Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili (once upon a time) are there to carry the scoring load; to play the parts of superstars. In this series, the San Antonio Spurs have asked Leonard to defend more than anything else. Scoring and glass-crashing will then occur within the flow of the game. The way San Antonio's system is set up, Leonard is going to get his numbers.
But it's LeBron's numbers the Spurs are more worried about. That's all any team is fretting over when facing LeBron. Completely stifling the greatest player on the planet isn't a realistic expectation for any team. One can only hope to contain him—the way Leonard has.
Three games into the finals, Leonard has held LeBron to 16.7 points on 38.9 percent shooting from the floor and a 23.1 percent clip from three. Prior to this series, LeBron was posting 26.2 points on 51.4 percent shooting. So yeah, we all have to admit that Leonard has done a good job.
Game 3 was no exception either. LeBron went 7-of-21 from the field overall, 2-of-14 outside the paint and 1-of-5 from deep, for a total of 15 points. His 33 percent shooting clip was his lowest since Game 4 of the 2011 finals, and was tied for the third-worst finals shooting performance of his career.
Helped along by Danny Green, Leonard has reduced LeBron to a pass-first, please-don't-make-me-shoot version of himself. But he's not a LeBron stopper by any means. He himself even admits it.
"Honestly, I don't think I'm doing that good of a job on him," Leonard told reporters after Game 3, according to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN. "He's still making baskets in a row when he's being aggressive. When I'm in the game, I'm just trying to contest all his shots, not give him anything easy because he's going to make shots."
Though Leonard is shortchanging himself, he has a point.
LeBron went 5-of-5 during the Miami Heat's 33-5 run in Game 2, most of which Leonard was on the floor for. He also closed out the third quarter of Game 3 with nine straight points on 4-of-4 shooting. Even in Tuesday night's disaster, LeBron has had his moments.
Dominant showings have become transient in LeBron's quest for retribution; collateral damage from LeBron's attempt to rewrite the past.
Something he said coming into the finals sticks out in my mind like a guy who wears socks with sandals in the middle of a blizzard. He ruefully acknowledged that the Spurs forced him into jumpers in 2007 when he was with the Cavaliers.
Goading him into outside shots worked then. LeBron converted on just 35.6 of his field-goal attempts overall and 20 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. San Antonio went on to sweep Cleveland, leaving LeBron still ring-less at the time.
But this isn't 2007, and LeBron isn't the same player. He drilled more than 40 percent of his deep balls during the regular season and is a far better player than he was then, something he readily admitted.
"I'm a better player (than 2007) and you can't dare me to do anything I don't want to do," he told the media before the finals began, per ESPN's Chris Palmer.
And he's right. LeBron isn't coaxed into anything anymore; he plays on his own terms. He'll pass when he wants to pass, shoot when he wants to shoot and so on and so forth. That hasn't changed, even against San Antonio's sophomore sensation.
Take this offensive set from the second quarter of Game 3:
Ray Allen sets a screen for LeBron, who has the option of hitting the sharpshooter as he's rolling off or driving past Gary Neal, counting on Chris Bosh to block out Duncan and attack.
Or he can pull up for a three, which he did:
Leonard did a great job recovering in time to contest a shot that inevitably rolled off the rim, but LeBron didn't have to shoot it in the first place. He had other options.
Other avenues were available earlier in the quarter as well when Green was defending him:
LeBron could have dribbled, attempting to create even more space or with the intention of driving baseline to attack the rim. But he didn't, instead settling for yet another jump shot:
He missed again.
Let's try this one more time for effect. This set finds LeBron without the ball inside the arc:
A complex off-ball directional could have been employed, or LeBron could have simply gotten the ball and driven to the basket. Once again, however, he steps behind the three-point arc and misses another shot:
The Spurs aren't removing LeBron from the offensive equation by running a series of convoluted switches or relying on Leonard to do the job on his own. They're letting LeBron settle for jumpers, much like in 2007.
To be clear, they're not daring him to shoot from the outside. You don't dare someone who connected on 40.6 percent of his three balls to shoot threes. They might do that now after watching him clang shot-after-shot off the rim in Game 3, but just know that wasn't always the plan.
LeBron is daring himself to take these shots, to make these shots. Perhaps feeling he has something to prove after the 2007 debacle, he's not attacking the rim, which just isn't him.
Shooting a 40-percet clip from behind the rainbow was an added strength of his, not an offense-defining penchant. Per HoopData, more than a third of LeBron's shot attempts came at the rim during the regular season. Attacking the paint is what he does, he's just not doing it against Leonard or the rest of the Spurs.
On the occasions when has assaulted the rim, he's found success.
Two-thirds of LeBron's Game 3 attempts came outside the paint and he connected on two of them. Of the seven shots he took inside the paint, he hit five of them or 71.4 percent, as shown below.
Reverting back to his inside-out ways has allowed LeBron to score. Strictly hoisting up long jump shots before he dribbles culminated in Game 3, and is largely why he has yet to put up 20 or more points since the finals began.
Part of this is courtesy of Leonard and the rest of the Spurs defense. Leonard isn't going to crowd him or open himself up to his dribble penetration. He's going to steer LeBron into the help-defense, and play off him knowing that a slightly contested jumper beats being put on a poster any day. He's going to hope that LeBron decides to relent to the more difficult shot, then hope he misses.
Be sure to appreciate all Leonard has done, but also understand that hope isn't a part of some forward-thinking movement.
"I'm just going out there playing," Leonard said following Game 3.
Playing, defending, is what he's always done. That's his job and he's doing it to the best of his abilities.
LeBron just isn't able to say the same.
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