That's Pretty Interesting: Kawhi Leonard's evolving passing game is setting the tone for Raptors

TORONTO -- Kawhi Leonard saved the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday. The team that had the league's best record needed him to smack the ball away from DeAndre' Bembry and stonewall Trae Young in the game's final 30 seconds in order to beat the lowly Atlanta Hawks by a mere three points. The play that stuck with me, though, took place about a minute earlier and had no bearing on the outcome. 

With the Raptors down by one, Leonard isolated against Bembry. A spin move propelled him to the paint, and all five Hawks defenders had their eyes on him. Three of them converged, trying to force a turnover or at least make him give up the ball. In traffic, Leonard managed to find Kyle Lowry as open as he has ever been at the top of the key. Lowry missed the 3 badly, but that's hardly the point. 

This is likely the play Nick Nurse had in mind when he said that Leonard has "a lot of arms climbing all over him," requiring him to use his considerable strength just to complete a pass. The Toronto coach lightly suggested that "maybe, some of those, he should be shooting free throws, but he plays through the hits and keeps finding people." 

Leonard had six assists to go with his 31 points against Atlanta, and his coach probably wouldn't have praised Leonard in this particular way two months ago. "About 12-15 games into the season," Nurse said, Leonard started seeing more double- and triple-teams. In a new system, with new teammates, the superstar didn't always have the clearest picture of the court in his head, especially with multiple bodies flying at him. Over the course of the season, Leonard has figured it out -- his passing has never been better -- and is regularly hitting cutters for layups and shooters for wide-open looks. 

"Even when Kawhi's in kill mode, things are flowing much better," Nurse said. 

Leonard's kill mode is powerful. Last week against the Utah Jazz, he scored a career-high 45 points, 19 of them coming in a third-quarter takeover. It was one of the most impressive performances anyone has had this season. There is a natural tension, though, between the Raptors' offensive flow and Leonard's individual exploits. Some of that is relieved when Leonard makes it a point to be a passer. 

"It's contagious," Toronto guard Fred VanVleet told CBS Sports. "And obviously he can get his points whenever he wants, but when he comes out and sets the table and sets the tone of passing, we've had some of our high-assist numbers."

This is not to say that the Raptors -- back in action on Friday against the Nets (7:30 p.m. ET; watch on fuboTV) -- are in perfect harmony. Their pace without Leonard on the court would rank fourth in the NBA; with him, it would rank 20th. The Hawks game marked the first time since Dec. 9 that he and Lowry had shared the court, thanks to injuries and Leonard's no-back-to-back program, which might be over now. 

It is easy to see that Lowry has been significantly more aggressive and efficient without Leonard, but this is a reflection of a bigger issue, the defining element of Toronto's season: The coaching staff is trying to make the absolute most of Leonard's talent without boxing everybody else into limited, restrictive roles. Nurse understands why players sometimes end up standing around as Leonard dissects the defense -- when he is on the sideline, he likes watching Leonard go to work, too.

There is little mystery to how opposing teams will defend the Raptors in the playoffs. They will dare every role player, save for Danny Green and perhaps C.J. Miles, to shoot from the perimeter. They will try to take the ball out of Leonard's hands. The rest of the regular season is about preparing for this, but Leonard seems to have his part of the equation down. Last Saturday in Milwaukee, he assisted on all three of Pascal Siakam's 3-pointers. 

"He commands such attention on the floor that he is going to be able to get double-teamed, he's going to be able to find guys," Lowry said. "We just gotta be able to make shots for him."

Leonard does not pick teams apart the way LeBron James and James Harden do, but for a guy who has averaged 2.3 assists in his career, there is real progress on display. Keeping it up might vault him higher in all the experts' MVP rankings, and more importantly, it would help bridge the gap between the let's beat teams with our system strategy and the let Kawhi cook strategy. Against elite defensive teams, under postseason pressure, Toronto will have to be comfortable manufacturing points however they come. Bring on the triple-teams. 

'Don't show your third nipple'

Hawks guard Kevin Huerter's high school coach had a saying: Don't show your third nipple. 

"You go on a date, you show your strengths, and if you have a weakness, you don't show it right away," Huerter told CBS Sports, mostly keeping a straight face. "So, going into a game, obviously one of the bigger strengths I have is making shots, so, let that be my strength. Don't show all the weaker parts of my game. Let your date figure out your third nipple instead of showing it, instead of telling 'em about it."

Your mileage may vary when it comes to the aptness of this analogy, but there is no denying that shooting is Huerter's strength. His form is downright exquisite, so much so that I had to stop myself from making this (short!) compilation of swishes several minutes longer:

Crucially, Huerter knows he is not just a shooter. In fact, whenever he noticed someone describe him this way coming into the draft, "I was like, 'OK, he hasn't watched me play,'" he said. In interviews with teams, executives continually told him they liked his playmaking. The threat of his shot, of course, allows him to be effective in other areas, but if you think he is a specialist, ask the Washington Wizards about him:

Huerter shot just 5-for-14 in that game, including 1-for-7 from deep, but was still effective. Against the Heat a few days later, he shot 4-for-16 but finished with 10 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. No player wants his value to be dictated strictly by whether or not shots are falling, and the Hawks' system demands their wings to be multi-dimensional. Coach Lloyd Pierce already sees the 20-year-old Huerter as one of their focal points offensively.

"We run a lot of offense through him," Pierce said, "because he can shoot, score, get in the paint and facilitate for others."

Halfway through his rookie season, Huerter said his confidence to make plays is much higher than it was at the start. He missed summer league recovering from hand surgery, struggled in the preseason and had to get used to competing against players he'd watched on TV. 

In an exhibition game against Memphis, Huerter thought about how Marc Gasol spent his offseason on a rescue mission in the Mediterranean. A week later in Miami, he had to guard Dwyane Wade, one of his favorite players. (The others: Chauncey Billups, Allen Iverson and LeBron.) Huerter used to wear Wade's Converses. 

"This guy is standing in front of me and I know his whole life story," Huerter said. "Can I still make the same play on him? The answer is yes. They're great players, but I'm realizing I'm a good player, too, and I can still do those types of things."

Huerter's numbers, unfortunately, do not reflect how promising his skills are. He has shown more potential than productivity as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, and, despite the fact that his shot looks pure, he is shooting just 40.3 percent from the field. He particularly wants to improve at the rim. 

"Getting to the basket and finishing through contact, getting to the line is I think a part of my game that's been developing over the last couple of years," Huerter said. "I haven't been efficient and I haven't been finishing as well as I'd like to inside the 3-point line."

The obvious question here: By revealing the area of his game that he's most focused on, has Huerter shown his third nipple? I say no, as Atlanta's coaching staff keeps telling him to stay aggressive and he believes these are easier shots than some of the contested 3s he's been taking. From this perspective, simply being open about this is evidence that confidence isn't an issue anymore. 

The mixtape: Archie, Marry Me

If he was doing his damage for a relevant team, Ryan Arcidiacono's season would be a hell of a story. His contract became guaranteed this week, but that was a formality. The second-year point guard has played in all but one of the Chicago Bulls' games, establishing himself as a rotation-caliber player who can be trusted to run the pick-and-roll and knock down open 3-pointers. The man himself didn't see any of this coming, and he deserves a mixtape: 

Checking in on … De'Anthony Melton

Here is Phoenix Suns guard De'Anthony Melton being extremely mean to fellow rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander last Friday:

And here he is cutting off a De'Aaron Fox drive in crunch time on Tuesday, which led to a turnover:

Melton had 10 points on 4-for-9 shooting, plus eight assists, four rebounds, four steals and two blocks in that Kings game, a 115-111 Suns win. His stats don't usually jump off the page like that, but, with his defense and upside, it makes sense that Phoenix coach Igor Kokoskov has kept Melton in the starting lineup since Dec. 7. 

Every NBA nerd went nuts over him at summer league. Long-term, I love how he fits next to Devin Booker. I still kind of can't believe that the Houston Rockets let him go.

Hmmmm: Kuzma and the Lakers' 'Death Lineup'

On Wednesday, Kyle Kuzma told reporters that he wanted the Los Angeles Lakers to go small more often. He is aware that they struggled defensively when they tried this early on, but thinks he and James should have another chance to man the frontcourt together when the superstar is healthy. 

"I honestly think that our smallball unit can be really good," Kuzma said, via ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk. "I think that we can have a Death Lineup, whether that's [Rajon] Rondo and Lonzo [Ball] on the floor at the same time and me and [Brandon Ingram] and [James], or substituting guys. But I think as we get better defensively and get more continuity, that small-ball lineup is going to be huge for us, especially in the playoffs when everybody's going to go small."

If you are incredulous, I don't blame you. When James and Kuzma have played together without a traditional big man, the Lakers have surrendered 112.2 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass. The Tyson Chandler signing changed the team because Los Angeles desperately needed rim protection, and the lineup Kuzma suggested needs better shooting.  

Coming into the season, though, I wanted to see the Lakers get weird. My preferred lineup is Ball, Josh Hart, Ingram, Kuzma and James, which has been fine in a miniscule sample size. It's a good idea if they actually get the benefits of smallball -- spacing, defensive versatility, playmaking and speed -- rather than just doing it for the heck of it. 

If coach Luke Walton gives this a go, maybe he will find a group that can create separation with scoring binges. Maybe he will even find a new closing lineup. Maybe he will find nothing, really, but he will have at least not waited until the postseason to experiment. Over the past few years, traditional centers have become largely unplayable in May and June, and this is the most convincing argument for getting the reps in now. Even if you don't believe the Lakers have any right to call any of their combinations a "Death Lineup."

Also: Kuzma scored 41 points in three quarters hours after his comments, so it doesn't feel like a good time to doubt him in any capacity.


10 more stray thoughts: Psst! The Celtics have a top-10 offense … It won't happen but I keep thinking about Kevin Durant and Zion Williamson on the Hawks … We should have all known Austin Rivers would eventually go to Houston and thrive there when he gave this interview … Speaking of Houston: Chandler Parsons is going to wind up back there, right? … If Caris LeVert picks up where he left off, the Nets could really be something … The Patrick McCaw saga has had so many twists and turns ... Seriously, Frank JacksonAnthony Davis doing the damn Shammgod is "not really surprising???" …  I genuinely have no idea what to expect from Warriors Boogie … The whole "Orlando is interesting" thing feels over now … I admit it: I get a kick out of Toronto's P.A. announcer crediting Greg Monroe's buckets to "The Moose."

CBS Sports Writer

James Herbert is somewhat fond of basketball, feature writing and understatements. A former season-ticket holder for the expansion Toronto Raptors, Herbert does not think the NBA was better back in the... Full Bio

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