Spurs-Lakers: Kawhi Leonard is a matchup problem in waiting

By Zach Harper | NBA writer

See this guy? Remember his name. (USATSI)
See this guy? Remember his name. (USATSI)

Over the last decade, Shawn Marion was always someone who gave opponents fits. Whether he was on the Phoenix Suns or Dallas Mavericks (let's just pretend the Raptors and Heat days didn't happen), he was used as an ultimate X-factor for his teams. He was a position player without a position. He was called upon to morph into whatever role his coach needed from him that night.

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Need Marion to be a spot-up shooter around the floor and sneak into the cracks of the defense to find good shots? He'll do it. Need him to slash to the basket and run the floor to get baskets? He's already in motion. Need him to defend a wing scorer or switch onto a quick point guard or play free safety in the half court? He can do that too. He was a constant matchup problem for opponents because he adapted to whatever was needed of him on any given night.

Under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich and the guidance of his veteran teammates, Kawhi Leonard is quickly turning into that same type of utility matchup problem the Spurs can rely on to be active in whichever way suits the situation. Against the Los Angeles Lakers in this series, the San Antonio Spurs have called on Leonard in the first two games to be a disruptive force. And a big part of that disruption comes from his ability to attack whatever the Lakers throw his way.

Leonard isn't someone you're going to call plays for and have him isolate against Metta World Peace to get buckets (although he has become quite the playmaker in his first two seasons). He's someone that waits for World Peace to drift toward the action. That's when Kawhi pounces by cutting to the hoop and catching the pass with his hands that resemble catcher's mitts. He sneaks behind or through the defense and is a quick jumper that finishes around Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol with relative ease.

When he's not scoring at the basket, he's gravitating to the blind spots of the opposing defense. He receives a pass and can either knock down the jumper or make a quick pass. This is the luxury of having a player who can develop without the often-needed trial and error approach to young guys.

Defensively, he's been preying on the weakened state of Steve Nash, pestering Steve Blake, and tricking World Peace into thinking the shots he's taking are good ideas. He engulfs the players he defends by using his remarkable wingspan and quick feet. During the first two games against the Lakers, he's doubled down into the post. It's the only place the Lakers can hurt the Spurs and with just one Tim Duncan to defend Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard, the help from the perimeter has to be quick and bothersome.

That's exactly what Leonard's been doing and that's what he'll continue to do in the playoffs. He'll be disruptive. If the Nuggets advance to face the Spurs in the second half, he'll draw the assignment of stopping Wilson Chandler from scoring on the perimeter and he'll probably be asked to end the Old Man Game of Andre Miller. If the Warriors advance to the second round, he'll draw the assignment of chasing Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry around the screens.

And if everything goes according to plan for Gregg Popovich, he'll be asked to try to stop Kevin Durant from putting the ball in the basket. Whether he has the advantage or the disadvantage in each of his upcoming matchups, he'll just be the quiet role player that continues to make a name for himself. He isn't on the level of Duncan, Parker or Ginobili, but he's just as important in the Spurs' scheme as any of those guys.

Because while they're excelling in their very defined roles on the court, Kawhi Leonard is just plugging into the areas where the team needs him to perform that night. Scorer. Defender. Rebounder. Facilitator. Just point him where he needs to be; he'll fill that role.

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