Back in December, we noticed a bizarre trend involving the Spurs' defense, which showed that their numbers were actually better with Kawhi Leonard off the court. The central argument involved a trend that saw teams putting Leonard deep in the corner on offensive possessions, relegating him to a small area of space where he can't "infect" the offense. We called it "Kawhisolation." 

And we're seeing it now, in the second round of the playoffs. 

Watch Ryan Anderson here in the Rockets' blowout Game 1 victory. He gets the ball to James Harden, and tells Trevor Ariza to go higher up the floor as he takes Leonard deep in the corner:

This is pretty standard spacing, but look where the action is run, to the opposite side of the floor from Leonard:

Much of what happened involved Anderson. When Anderson was at power forward, the Spurs put Leonard on Anderson, to enable Leonard to switch onto Harden in pick and pop situations. And that might have worked, if not for Harden's patience in those sets: 

Meanwhile, the other half of the time, Anderson was doing stuff like this:


Now, Anderson can, and does, spot up from that distance. That's one of the ways they're so effective, as written about here. They are finding extra spacing on top of good spacing. But by being so far back, Leonard's constantly caught in no-man's land. And half the time? Anderson's not even really trying, here. On the play below, Anderson barely crosses half-court. 


"If Kawhi wants to guard me the whole game," Anderson half-joked Tuesday, "then I'll be standing almost out of bounds to give James that extra space."

To show how little impact the Rockets allowed Leonard to have on the game defensively:

  • Leonard averaged 3.5 deflections per game in the six games vs. Memphis, per He had zero deflections in Game 1 vs. the Rockets. 

  • Via Synergy Sports, Leonard was the primary defender on just three possessions. He was scored on once by James Harden, who got him on a dribble-hand-off drive, and contested two spot-up shots. That's it. No pick and roll shots with him guarding the ball-handler. No isolations. No post-ups. Nothing. They avoided him like the plague, and attacked the rest of the Spurs' defense. And it worked. 

Now, the Spurs were the No. 1 defense in the league this season for a reason, and a lot of things, really everything, went wrong in Game 1. They won't play that badly again, and much of it is simple stuff like just finding your assignments in transition, and better communication. This also isn't rocket science, nor is it, obviously, anything they haven't seen before. But it does present a challenge in getting the most out of Leonard's abilities. The Spurs can't keep Leonard on Harden full-time. The Rockets have too many other weapons, Harden will draw fouls on him and it'll take too much out of Leonard. 

But there are some options

  1. Commit more fully to help defense. Let's go back to this one, with Leonard guarding Ariza.

Leonard is going half-measures here, as Walter White cautioned, "No half-measures." If Leonard is going to play off and dare Ariza to hit 3-pointers (which he can, but he only shot 34 percent on them in the regular season), then go all the way in. Commit fully to help and recover. This is still tough because about half the time the Rockets just ran their action to the opposite side of the floor from where Leonard was, but it at least deters things. On a few plays, Leonard came all the way into the paint, and Harden settled for 3-pointers vs. Spurs' bigs on switches. He'll still make a fair amount, but it at least dictates the terms. 

2. Put Leonard on Capela. This involves a higher workload for Leonard, battling a bigger player, which is bruising and exhausting, but does free him up. If the Rockets try the lob, Leonard's big mitts can intercept, which would greatly help since Capela abused the Spurs inside in Game 1. LaMarcus Aldridge (who had an unbelievably bad game) just wasn't quick enough to recover on Capela, and Leonard's shot blocking might be a bonus there. Plus, it frees him to help and recover more often. 

3. Go full bore, and put Leonard on Harden full-time. There are two benefits here. One, it takes away the engine of Houston. They're not going to take Harden and bury him in a corner, but Harden also disengaged when Leonard was switched onto him most times. Two, it frees up Danny Green to attack easier matchups like Lou Williams, Eric Gordon and Patrick Beverley, and if you take away both guards, the Rockets don't have a wing to create. The drawbacks are, as said above, you risk him getting in foul trouble, and you take away his offensive energy. But this is the playoffs, and a slower, uglier game benefits the Spurs. 

This isn't some "magical" adjustment the Rockets made, and the entire series isn't going to hinge on who Leonard guards. The rest of the Spurs have to defend better, and make shots, and basically play the opposite of how they played in Game 1, as they should -- they're the Spurs. But this does show a challenge that the Spurs knew were coming, it exacerbates the problems they've had with their two-bigs lineups, and it did impact Game 1. Maybe the Spurs don't need to adjust to this, but it is a sign of how Houston found ways to take the most dangerous perimeter defensive weapon in the league and lock him on an island, helpless to assist his team as Houston cut them to ribbons in Game 1.