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The Downbeat #1855: Kawhi Leonard Is Good

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Kawhi Leonard is Andrei Kirilenko's fully evolved form.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

A quick rule of thumb, if your argument starts with "I know it's [insert best player at his position here] but [insert player being guarded or guarding him here] has to come ready to play." then you might be a little too quick to pass judgement.  Gordon Hayward didn't have his greatest game against the San Antonio Spurs.  More importantly he didn't have his greatest game against Kawhi Leonard.  That's because Kawhi Leonard is Defensive Player of the Year caliber Andrei Kirilenko with a 3 point shot.  Think of it this way: Kawhi Leonard is Andrei Kirilenko's fully evolved form.  If Andrei Kirilenko was an Animorph, he'd morph into Kawhi Leonard.  Don't believe me?

Here's the averages from the players Kawhi Leonard has guarded this year.  This is only the starting players. I purposefully left out bench units.  This is scary.  Kawhi limits his opponents to this:

11.9 Points, 4.1 Rebounds, 2.1 Assists, 2.0 Turnovers, and 2.1 TOTAL Free Throw Attempts a game.

That's a beast.  Then when you look at the other side of that.  Kawhi is averaging:

20.3 Points, 6.7 Rebounds, 2.5 Assists, 1.8 Steals. Not to mention almost averaging above 50% from the 3 point line.

While there are many (misguided) people trying to throw Gordon Hayward under the Kawhi bus that almost EVERY small forward has been run over by you might want to eat some humble pie and see which players had the best games against Kawhi this year:

LeBron James

Kobe Bryant

Evan Fournier

Markieff Morris

In other words, an unknown player has just a good of a chance, if not better, of having an above average game against Kawhi Leonard as LeBron James.  Gordon Hayward had the 12th best game of the season against Kawhi Leonard on January 5, 2016.  So before we start throwing people under the bus, let's just let it be known that the San Antonio Spurs and Kawhi Leonard made Hayward a pivotal part of their game plan.  He was their target to shut down.  All-Star players can overcome this on most nights, but the San Antonio Spurs are not most teams and Kawhi Leonard is not like most players.

Saying Gordon Hayward should have been able to overcome Kawhi Leonard's defense last night is akin to saying a Jeep Wrangler shouldn't get stuck off-roading.  While it's true a Jeep is made for off-roading, there are some things not even it can overcome.  It's easy to get stuck in "woulda-coulda" mode, but the Spurs were not a trap game.  They're the 2nd best team in the NBA and in most years would be the best team in the NBA by a wide margin if not for the Golden State Warriors.

There's one thing most people haven't touched on about the San Antonio game.  Coach Popovich normally likes to rest some of his starters on a back to back.  But for some reason, he opted against that when playing the Utah Jazz.  Why?

Could it be that Pop realizes that the San Antonio Spurs could very possibly face the Utah Jazz in the 1st round of the playoffs and doesn't want to be surprised by any unknown?  Most likely.  Coach Pop probably wanted to send a message, too.  What a scary situation to allow the Utah Jazz, a young improving team day by day, the idea that it can go toe to toe with San Antonio and even beat them.  The last thing the Spurs would want is a 1st round matchup with Utah after Utah has figured out that it can beat the San Antonio Spurs at full strength at home.  San Antonio doesn't want to have a prolonged first round matchup.  Not with their aging roster.  The game in Salt Lake City was to send a message.  The Utah Jazz went into the game like a regular season game, which isn't bad, but the Spurs had other plans.  They showed the Jazz what a playoff intensity game would be like.  What they would have to face.  This was to knock the Jazz's confidence and, boy, did it show.

By the 4th quarter the Jazz looked destroyed mentally.  The San Antonio Spurs had even played the Jazz's game, a slow and methodical pace, and beat them at it.

Not all is lost after the San Antonio game.  It must serve as a reminder of the intensity the Utah Jazz must bring to EVERY quarter of EVERY game.  If the Utah Jazz expect to make the playoffs with a determined Houston Rockets team and a hotter than Portland's goat milk soap scene Trailblazers team, they must be ready to go every game.  Every game is important.

The Utah Jazz are also going through a major transition at point guard.  They shook up their lineup playing with Shelvin Mack.  That chemistry is only going to increase and get better.  Shelvin doesn't know where to be all the time on offense.  He also has never played with a game changing defensive powerhouse like Rudy before.  This is a new frontier for him.  The Utah Jazz are also playing with a very deep bench right now.  That's not a good thing.  The rotation is going to tighten and it's any man's guess who's going to be left out as the season progresses.  Right now Quin Snyder is playing 11 deep into the roster.  Alec Burks return is on the horizon.  His recovery table was 8-10 weeks and it is now week 8.  March is going to be a very rough month for Utah.  They have to bring Alec Burks back into the lineup while transitioning Shelvin Mack.  Get ready for a bumpy ride, but if the Jazz can bring it together they could be the team no one wants to face in April.

Speaking of guards returning from injury.  Dante Exum is starting an AAU team in Utah.  It's the Utah Prospects and it looks like Adidas game them the full treatment.

On this day in Jazz history, Karl Malone posted a triple double.