‘It’s the Kawhi effect:’ The impact of having a transcendent star

TORONTO — In the parlance of the Toronto Raptors, it’s called Drive-Kick-Swing. Though it’s a mainstay in the Raptors’ playlist of practice drills, Drive-Kick-Swing was on full display under the bright lights of Scotiabank Arena in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday night.

In the third quarter, Kawhi Leonard was at the controls, the ‘Drive’ in Drive-Kick-Swing. Leonard, as he has been all series by Milwaukee Bucks defenders, was being influencing to drive left by Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon. Leonard obliged and, as has also been the case the entire series, encountered two additional defenders as he reached the paint.

Hounded by multiple bodies after picking up his dribble, here comes the ‘Kick’: Leonard passed the ball out to Fred VanVleet out on the left wing behind the arc. With so many defensive resources committed to Leonard, Bucks guard George Hill had to account on the left side of the floor for both VanVleet and his teammate, Norman Powell, alone in the left corner.

Finally, the ‘Swing.’ As Hill closed on VanVleet, the Raptors backup point guard dished the ball over to Powell. Of Powell’s team-leading 18 field goal attempts in Game 4, this shot was the most delectable — open corner 3-pointers are the mother’s milk of NBA basketball in 2019. Powell drained it to put the Raptors up 10 points.

The lead would never again narrow to single-digits, as the Raptors got massive contributions from their full complement of players to pull away to a 120-102 victory, and even the series at 2-2.

“Kawhi is going to get attention all the time, no matter what,” Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry told ESPN. “It’s the Kawhi Effect.”

The privilege of having a transcendent superstar like Leonard isn’t just the gift of the singular performance that wins a game, though Leonard has done plenty of over the past six weeks of the postseason. The team also enjoys the ability to leverage a defense like Milwaukee’s that devotes its full weight and diligence to stopping that guy.

“He’s going to carry us some games — he’s a superstar,” Lowry said. “But then you have nights like tonight when he just let everyone else do their thing and he doesn’t have to carry as much. In the first quarter, he didn’t touch the ball all that much. But we attacked and moved the ball off the attention he attracted.”

Easing Leonard’s load was imperative for Toronto, because the three-time All-Star came into action still gassed from Game 3. Though there’s been no specific diagnosis and Leonard insist he feels good, Nurse characterized his best player as “tired,” and Lowry said he was “a little bit limited.” Leonard’s 19 points were his lowest output since Game 3 of the Raptors’ first-round series against Orlando, a night he was under the weather.

The Bucks’ top-ranked defense has established and refined its principles over the course of the regular season and playoffs. While they’ve introduced a tweak or two against specific matchups, their broad strategy hasn’t changed. The Bucks are fully committed to packing the paint to ward off penetration and prevent easy shots inside. Help will be dispatched from marginal and even some average shooters, which will leave some open shots on the perimeter. So long as the integrity of the interior defense isn’t compromised, this is a trade-off Milwaukee is content to live with.

Accordingly, Raptors center Marc Gasol shot the ball from beyond the arc six times in Game 4 (converting three), while Powell attempted 13 3-pointers. In total, the Raptors have attempted 40 uncontested shots over the past two games, according to Second Spectrum, and converted them at an effective field goal percentage of 61.3. Over the first two games in Milwaukee, they also found 40 uncontested shots — but hit them at an effective field goal rate of only 47.5 percent.

“With Kawhi having the ball, he draws so much attention,” said Powell. “So it’s opening up a lot for us on the weak side. We’re just trying to play through him a little bit, play through Marc. I think Marc did a phenomenal job of breaking down the defenses when he had the ball up top on cuts, on screens. I think we’re just playing for one another. Everybody is talking on what we see and how we can get better looks and try to get a shot up every time. We’re staying confident in one another.”

Gasol led the team in assists on Tuesday night, a leading indicator that the Raptors have reclaimed their identity as a high-IQ outfit that can generate shots creatively at multiple spots on the floor. Gasol was a master at the top of the floor, leading Leonard into the lane with a little drop pass for an easy bucket after Khris Middleton denied the pass out on the perimeter. Gasol and Leonard paired up again about a minute later with a heady back-door sequence when Middelton again got caught on the high side.

When the Raptors fail to hit open shots as they’ve done so frequently over the past few weeks against Philadelphia and Milwaukee, it’s easy to forget about the collective intelligence of the outfit. But Leonard, Gasol and Lowry held an honors class in basketball IQ in Game 4. Lowry led the team with 25 points, including a 10-for-10 night at the line, the product of some heavy manufacturing — turning broken possessions into meaningful points by simply drawing contact against a destabilized defense.

Both VanVleet and Ibaka have struggled through long stretches of the postseason, but each thrived in his role in Game 4. VanVleet posted a perfect 3-for-3 from long range to score 13 points and dished out six assists in 25 minutes of action. Meanwhile, Raptors coach Nick Nurse gave his backup big man Ibaka a directive to go out on the court and wield his athleticism as a blunt object. Ibaka responded by helping Toronto accomplish something it rarely has in the playoffs: Control the glass. Through three quarters, the Raptors collected 31 percent of their misses, a big number that helped them control possession and wear down Milwaukee.

For the Bucks, the bludgeoning at the hands of the Raptors was a stark reminder that good opponents have problem-solving capacity. While the Bucks’ defensive schemes are certainly well-drawn, they have to be executed with more precision and greater discernment. Not all help is created equal — it must be prompt and occasionally selective.

As dynamic as the Bucks are offensively, they can ill-afford to squander possessions on the road with poor decisions against a strong defensive team. Whether it’s Khris Middleton fouling 75 feet away from the basket with less than three seconds left before halftime in a heave situation, or Antetokounmpo launching off the dribble jumpers from 21 feet out of sheer impulse, the Bucks don’t have half a dozen possessions to spare, not on a night when Malcolm Brogdon couldn’t find his shot, when Bledsoe was again an offensive cipher.

Yet the Bucks are resolute. They believe in their schemes, their mode of preparation and the philosophy that guides their systems. After the game, Antetokounmpo rejected the notion that the Bucks’ failures in Games 3 and 4 demanded adjustments.

“We’re just going to keep doing the same thing,” Antetokounmpo said. “We want the other guys to take shots. We’ve got to keep being aggressive defensively on Kawhi, try to limit his shots. But at the end of the day, if guys come off the bench and they knock down shots, we’ve got to live with it, we’re doing our job.”

The Raptors clawed back into the series on faith in probabilities and personnel. Milwaukee will be equally steadfast in their belief. Such is the NBA’s deep postseason, when elite teams know and like who they are, and are willing live and die on those identities.

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