Kawhi Leonard is considered one of the best players in the NBA because he can do more than just score the basketball.
Leonard's the best wing defender in the NBA, using his incredible wingspan and instincts to disrupt his opponent all game long. That makes him one of the toughest matchups in the entire league, forcing players to work hard on both ends of the floor.
The Houston Rockets are finding this out the hard way as Leonard flusters Harden. It's more than physical gifts that make Kawhi a great defender, he's savvy on that end of the floor. He uses smart angles, avoids bad fouls and is able to stay a step ahead of opposing offenses.
The former Defensive Player of the Year has made a name for himself shutting down superstars in the postseason. The list of victims is a list of the top players in the entire world. LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Harden to name a few, have felt the tight grip of The Claw.
This mixtape of Leonard shutting down a variety of NBA superstars shows just how dominant he is on defense, no matter how tall the task. It's an absolute clinic:
Let's take a closer look at some of the star players that Leonard's shut down in the playoffs throughout his career, starting with how he's currently rattling Harden in the Western Conference semifinals.
Houston we have a problem
The Rockets came out on absolute fire in Game 1 of their series against the Spurs, but Leonard showed up to throw Harden off his rhythm in Game 2. Defensive highlights are subtle, but they're revealing under a microscope.
Look at how Leonard navigates around this screen, plays physical against Harden and still avoids the foul because he kept his hands up and away from making contact against a wild shot from The Beard:
Here's an example of Kawhi taking a perfect angle against Harden's aggressive drive to the rim. He shades James into the Spurs' help defense, forcing him to take a tough shot in the paint instead of trying to stay in front of Harden and possibly fouling the shifty guard:
It's subtleties like that that make Kawhi a brilliant defender. He has the individual talent to lock players down, but is also a smart team defender that enables head coach Gregg Popovich to scheme around his talents.
Dethroning The King
Game 5 of the 2014 NBA Finals may have featured the most important and impressive stretch of defense of Leonard's entire career. The Spurs needed just one more win to be crowned NBA champions, with a chance to dispatch LeBron and the Miami Heat.
James started off the game hot, scoring 17 points in the first quarter. He'd finish the game with 31 points, scoring just 14 more through the remaining three quarters as the Heat fell to San Antonio. The adjustment? Kawhi took over defensive duties on LeBron.
Leonard played LeBron tight, using his active hands and feet to make James a non-factor through the remainder of the game. You can see how he affected LeBron starting at the 1:10 mark in the video below:
This was an all-time great defensive performance against an all-time great living legend, and exactly why Leonard would be crowned the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player that night.
It wasn't a one-game thing, either. Leonard gave LeBron fits that entire series, becoming a star in the NBA as he went blow-for-blow with James and the Big Three. Kawhi was a key factor in James turning the ball over an NBA Finals record seven times in Game 3:
Kawhi came into his own in the 2014 NBA Finals, dethroning LeBron in convincing fashion. The case for Leonard being the best perimeter defender in the league begins and ends with this incredible series.
Bottling up the Thunder
Let's swing thing back to the Western Conference, with the Spurs taking on the Oklahoma City Thunder in Round 2 of the playoffs last season. Westbrook is one of the toughest covers in the NBA, having the speed and physicality to get wherever he wants on the court.
Enter Leonard, who captured the Thunder's lightning in a bottle in Game 1.
Bodying up a a bulldozer like LeBron is one thing, but Westbrook is a Lamborghini in comparison. The video below shows just how contained Russell was, forced to operate out of the paint and off the scorer's sheet through most of the night:
Westbrook finished with 14 points on 5-of-19 shooting, clearly hampered by having to figure out how to get around the defensive demon in front of him all game.
Leonard is one of the NBA's brightest stars, but what sets him apart is his ability to score 30-plus points while shutting down his opponent's top offensive threat. His defense has been top notch for years, and his offense arguably matches it now. He's become a true two-way superstar.