LeBron James went toe-to-toe with the reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard on Sunday, and before the Lakers and Clippers tipped off, James did everything in his power to make sure “toe-to-toe” wasn’t just a figure of speech.
In an interview with LZ Granderson of the L.A. Times, Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy said that before the game, James texted him and told him he wanted Leonard as his defensive assignment:
“People forget what he gets like after the All-Star break; he’s a different guy,” Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy said. “He’s preparing himself for that — that’s what you saw today and Milwaukee, you see him saying ‘Let me get myself and help my team in the right frame of mind.’ So for him diving on the floor for loose balls and taking the challenge defensively, that’s what you see.
“Last night I texted LeBron and asked him who he wanted to guard and he texted back, ‘I’m guarding Kawhi [Leonard].’ ”
James got his wish, of course, but the results weren’t great for the Lakers.
In the time James defended Leonard on Sunday, Leonard made three of his four field goal attempts and didn’t turn the ball over once, according to NBA.com. The one shot Leonard missed was a 3-pointer off of a hard screen from Ivica Zubac. James was credited with the defensive matchup, but the shot had already left Leonard’s hands by the time James went to close out. In other words, Leonard’s shot wasn’t going in either way.
The other matchups were legitimate one-on-one matchups where Leonard just blew by James with his speed. However, that shouldn’t come as a surprise because Leonard is seven years younger than James and in his athletic prime. It also shouldn’t be cause for alarm.
Despite their age difference, James got by Leonard a few times too. Leonard is credited with holding James to 1-4 shooting from the field and forcing him to turn the ball over once, but that’s just with Leonard as the primary defender. In the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game, the Lakers tried to eliminate Leonard as a threat defensively by setting screens, and hunting players that are less capable on defense like Lou Williams, and they were pretty successful at doing so.
It’s also worth noting that the season sample size of James guarding Leonard is only seven total shots, so there’s no reason to overreact in either direction. If anything, the biggest takeaway here is that James took the challenge of defending Leonard, which is something he was criticized for not doing enough in their first two matchups.
It may have not worked on Sunday, but James is just as capable of defending Leonard as anyone in the league is when he’s locked in, and, historically speaking, James’ defense goes to another level in the postseason. With how talented both James and Leonard are, it may just come down to who misses the most shots, and for the Lakers’ sake, let’s hope it’s Leonard and the Clippers.