How Kawhi Leonard steals so many rebounds

ALL THE WAY back during Game 1 of these NBA Finals, before the Toronto Raptors had the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors dazed and on the ropes, one play illustrates the most underappreciated aspect of Kawhi Leonard‘s absurd 2019 postseason.

The Warriors had scored a couple of baskets to cut their deficit to eight points, and desperately needed a stop to maintain their momentum — and it looked as if they were just about to get it. With 1:31 left, Stephen Curry forced a tough, contested Kyle Lowry fadeaway from the left elbow just before the shot clock expired.

But just as Lowry was letting his shot fly, Leonard sprinted in from just above the top of the 3-point arc to snag the offensive board inside the restricted area. The play ended with a Draymond Green foul, sending Fred VanVleet to the line for free throws that sealed the outcome.

It’s easy for a sequence like that to get lost, particularly when it comes to Leonard. Compile his most impressive plays and accomplishments this postseason, and this one wouldn’t even sniff the list: It doesn’t compete with the bouncy, historic buzzer-beater he hit to win Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. It can’t eclipse how he turned around the conference finals after limiting Giannis Antetokounmpo to just 20 points per game on 43% shooting over the last four games in that series. It’s hardly as impressive as the 30 or more points that Leonard has tallied 14 times since the playoffs began.

But it would be a mistake to overlook Leonard’s 47 offensive rebounds this postseason, which ranks third among all players. And that number doesn’t capture what’s perhaps most extraordinary about the impact he has had as a rebounder.

To appreciate that, you have to consider the number of times the 27-year-old star has launched himself into the paint to grab a miss he had no business getting to in the first place.

So far this postseason, Leonard has grabbed a league-high 12 offensive rebounds where he had to move 15 feet or more from where he was standing at the time a jump shot was released, according to a SportVU analysis of Second Spectrum data. That’s more than twice as many as the next-closest player, and represents more than a third of all the offensive boards off of missed jumpers that he has grabbed.

And much like that play toward the end of Game 1, a number of Leonard’s long-distance offensive rebounds have come during the most critical moments of the playoffs.

Consider Game 5 against the Milwaukee Bucks: Up one point with less than two minutes to go, Leonard launched a triple from the left wing, and — sensing he had short-armed it — ran in to grab the miss underneath the rim, beating an entire crowd to the ball. Antetokounmpo, whistled for a foul right after the rebound, clapped his hands together in frustration. Leonard hit both free throws to push his team’s lead to three, the closest Milwaukee would get the rest of the way, as Toronto held on to win the pivotal game 105-99.

Then in the series-ending Game 6, with a minute left and the Raptors up by five, Leonard swooped in from the free throw line to nab a short miss by Pascal Siakam — once again coming up with not only a winning play but also a ball he wasn’t supposed to secure.

THIS PAST WEEK Leonard was asked about a now-viral old saying from his college days — “The board man gets paid” — and gave his perspective on the value of rebounding.

“I used to say that when I was in high school and college, just wanting to get to this league,” Leonard said. “It’s about working hard, basically. Outworking the opponent. Rebounds help you win games. Big rebounds, offensive rebounds. Limiting the opponent to one shot. That used to be our motto, some of us in college that were trying to get to this point.”

Now that Leonard has gotten to this point, he has become such a dominant presence that even the most routine-looking rebound opportunities aren’t safe for opposing defenses.

Take a third-quarter possession from Game 3 of the East semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers. About 30 seconds into the period, Lowry drove to his left around JJ Redick, but left a layup short. Redick shielded Lowry from grabbing the miss, and Philadelphia point guard Ben Simmons was there to retrieve the ball to head back up the floor. But seemingly out of nowhere, Leonard shot through the lane and got his massive left hand on the ball, wresting control of it for himself and Toronto.

So how does Leonard actually do this? His enormous wingspan — a remarkable 7-foot-3 span atop a 6-foot-7 frame — and strength are obvious factors, and his split-second speed catches plenty of opposing players off guard. But it is also the wisdom of knowing the right time to take that sort of risk; especially against a team like the Warriors, who posted the highest effective field goal percentage in transition during the regular season.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse says he has only one rule for offensive rebounding: His players must be decisive, to avoid getting caught in no man’s land, in a spot where they have neither the ability to make an impact on the glass nor a chance to get back on defense. And Leonard has excelled at that. He has opted to crash the boards from 15 feet out about twice as frequently as the average NBA player this postseason, yet he has been successful — and secured boards from that far away — almost 39% of the time. That’s well above the league average of 30% on such offensive rebounding attempts.

The metrics speak to how sound Leonard’s approach — and by extension, Toronto’s approach — often is, even when he’s gambling.

Ask Danny Green, Leonard’s teammate for the past eight years, and he’ll say that he isn’t surprised when he sees a Leonard-sized blur fly past him to steal an offensive rebound. But what about the slumped shoulders and contorted faces he sees afterward from the defense? Green says that never gets old.

“Those plays change the energy, flow and momentum completely. They’re game-winning plays,” Green said. “It drains the life out of them whenever he does it.”

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