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Film Room: The awesomely amazing battle between Luc Mbah a Moute and Kawhi Leonard

In a great game, there are often little position battles that help decide who wins and who loses. Last night, the Clippers and Spurs engaged in one of those battles as Luc Mbah a Moute attempted to shut down Kawhi Leonard. This Film Room looks back at that.

For years the San Antonio Spurs have been buoyed by the ever-calming presence of an all-time great. As the sun starts to set on the brilliant career of Tim Duncan, another possible all-time great has taken over for him. Kawhi Leonard, the stoic small forward whom the Spurs acquired on draft night several years ago in exchange for George Hill, has proven to be one of the game’s very best. He’s already won a Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, but it’s his work this season that has people swooning all over again. On Friday night, the Los Angeles Clippers chose to put Luc Mbah a Moute on him as much as possible. To be blunt, Mbah a Moute did a wonderful job – except it didn’t matter on several shots. Let’s look back at the battle between Mbah a Moute’s defense and Leonard’s offense.

In the early stages of the game, we see one of the ways that the Clippers intended on defending Leonard. The play starts out with Leonard in the right corner before he gets the ball on a hand-off from Tony Parker. As Leonard dribbles and cuts below the arc, he passes to Tim Duncan, and then Leonard trots through the paint before ultimately ending up in the left corner. Mbah a Moute is with him the whole way. Leonard gets the ball in the left corner, dribbles to his right, and the Spurs run him into a screen from Duncan. Mbah a Moute goes underneath the screen, and Leonard opts to shoot the open three that falls off the mark. Mbah a Moute tries to get back into the play to contest, but it’s not as if his effort did anything to force a miss.

This was probably the one play that we can say that Mbah a Moute did not defend Leonard well. Sure, he was with him until that final screen, but it’s not as if Leonard was really doing all that much earlier in the possession. Going under the screen against a guy who was shooting 49.4 percent from three prior to last night’s game is a really big no-no. Mbah a Moute should have gone over the top, and that would have forced Leonard into a much more difficult shot. Granted, Leonard missed this attempt, but that’s not always the case. Can’t give up open threes to great shooters.

Roughly midway through the first quarter, we get a sideline-out-of-bounds (SLOB) play for the Spurs. Leonard is the inbounder on this possession, and he gets the ball back from Parker with about 9 on the shot clock. Parker made an excellent jumping baseline pass to Leonard in the left corner, and Mbah a Moute closed out brilliantly to force Leonard into a dribble move rather than a corner three. Leonard then briefly posts up before passing out of it, and then cuts all the way to the right wing. As Parker comes off of a screen, Mbah a Moute helps on the dribble, and Parker finds Leonard on the wing. Mbah a Moute recovers, gives a quality contest, but Leonard nails the buzzer-beating three-pointer.

This type of play is a punch to the gut. Think of all the things Mbah a Moute did on this play before the end result. He helped on a Duncan roll, dug down to prevent a drop off to Duncan when DeAndre Jordan helped on Parker’s drive, scurried back to prevent Leonard from getting an open corner three, forced Leonard into a pass, helped on a ball-handler in a pick-and-roll, and then gave a quality contest after a pass out. Mbah a Moute was pretty much everywhere here, but it didn’t matter. Credit Parker for finding Leonard not once but twice. Credit Leonard for nailing a super tough shot as the clock expired, as well. This is one of those shots you sort of have to live with.

We zoom all the way to around the four minute mark of the second quarter. Leonard and Mbah a Moute start out on the left wing before Leonard gets the ball, and then hands it right off to Parker before curling through to the right corner area. Leonard then tries to post up Mbah a Moute, but he can’t establish any credible position. So, Leonard comes up to get the ball from Duncan, and that’s when the isolation possession begins. Leonard dribbles left, spins back to his right, and attempts an incredibly tough fadeaway jumper from near the right elbow as Mbah a Moute defends it darn near as well as you can. The shot goes in, the Spurs close the gap, and Leonard is now a monster.

There’s really nothing that Mbah a Moute did wrong here. He prevents a post-up for a great player, forces said great player into an isolation situation, and then forces a high degree of difficulty shot. Mbah a Moute did reach in for a steal when Leonard is dribbling to his left, but that didn’t take him out of the play whatsoever. When Leonard turns to go into the jumper, Mbah a Moute is right there with him to contest brilliantly. On one side, we see great defense here. On the other, we see great offense. It’s fair to say that both players were exquisite on this possession.

We have another SLOB play for San Antonio. This one comes with about a minute to go in the first half. Leonard is the inbounder once again, and he makes a cut all the way down near the left elbow so that he can post up. When LaMarcus Aldridge feathers the entry pass into him, Leonard is in a tough spot. Mbah a Moute is right there with him, and there appears to be nowhere to go. Leonard faces up, dribbles to the right, and is forced to go into a true post-up when J.J. Redick digs down to help on the dribble move. When Redick recovers back to his own man, Leonard turns to attempt a right-handed hook shot from just below the free throw line. Mbah a Moute is all over him, but the shot still goes in.

There’s really no way to play this any better than the Clippers did. Mbah a Moute avoids a little screen set by Manu Ginobili on the initial cutting action by Leonard, and then he forces Leonard into bad post position. From there, Leonard is forced to give up a dribble to his right because of a help defender, and then Leonard has to resort to throwing up an extremely difficult right-handed hook shot. When you really think about it, this is a win for the defense. Even though the shot went in, this is exactly the kind of shot you want to force great players into taking. Tip your hat and move on. Leonard’s just special.

Early in the third quarter, we get more of excellent Los Angeles defense negated by the absolute brilliance of Kawhi Leonard. Leonard starts out on the left wing, but he cuts all the way to the right corner almost immediately. When Parker’s dribble-drive out of a pick-and-roll is stifled by the Clippers, he finds Leonard in the right corner. Due to Mbah a Moute attempting a steal on the pass, Leonard is forced into attempting a baseline drive to the basket rather than taking a three. Even though it appears like Mbah a Moute is off-balance, the Cameroonian recovers so well that Leonard has to stop his drive. Leonard resets, goes into a post-up, and then attempts an astoundingly challenging baseline fadeaway jumper. Mbah a Moute gets a hand right in there to contest, but it matters not one bit. Ball goes in, Clippers lose the lead, and Leonard is still a destroyer of worlds.

Give all the praise in the world to Leonard on this play. This is one of those shots that fantastic players have been hitting for years. Mbah a Moute almost got out of position going for the steal after supplying help defense, yet he recovered so perfectly that Leonard had no choice but to go into a post-up. This is the kind of defense the Clippers wanted in their starting lineup – and they’re getting it, even if a great player is hitting some tough shots against that tenacious defense. Mbah a Moute fought his tail off on this play, gave up nothing easy, and it still didn’t matter. Give him praise. Give them both praise, in fact. This battle was truly awesome to watch.

Towards the middle of the third quarter, we see the Clippers get relatively lucky early on because Parker throws a bounce pass that should have led to a Duncan dunk. Instead, the pass caromed off of Jordan’s leg (unintentionally), and the ball squirted all the way to midcourt. Leonard goes to retrieve it, Mbah a Moute meets him at the right wing, and Leonard dribbles back to his left in an effort to get some separation. Mbah a Moute reaches in and fouls him, though, and Leonard goes up with another tough shot that he nails for the and-one. It was one of those patented Dirk Nowitzki one-legged fadeaways while a defender did their best. This is the level of excellence Kawhi Leonard is at right now.

Yes, Mbah a Moute fouled Leonard here. That pretty much means he didn’t defend him all that well, but that’s also not really the case. This could be seen as a ticky-tack foul call made by the referee who was obstructed by the back of Leonard. Either way, this was a supremely tough shot, yet again, by Leonard. And, yet again, he knocked it down. Foul or not, this was some solid defense – after the initial lucky defense of the ball hitting Jordan’s leg – by Mbah a Moute here. Leonard wins this battle, though, by forcing a foul and making the shot. It was give-and-take all night long.

Up last, we have a possession with about five minutes to go in the third quarter. Leonard brings the ball up the court, and he’s met by Mbah a Moute. Tim Duncan attempts to post on the right block against DeAndre Jordan, but Leonard can’t find a suitable entry pass angle because of Mbah a Moute’s great denial. This action by Mbah a Moute makes Duncan have to move out of the post. Duncan gets a pass from Leonard near the right elbow, and Leonard receives the screen hand-off from Duncan almost immediately afterwards. Mbah a Moute slices through the screen, and then recovers to wall off Leonard’s left-handed drive. Leonard is forced into a tough free-throw line jumper by Mbah a Moute, and the ball falls off the mark.

This is just brilliance by the Los Angeles small forward. He denies a possible baseline drive, forces San Antonio out of a post-up opportunity for Duncan by frantically denying an entry pass, stays with Leonard after a screen hand-off, walls off a driving angle, and then forces a tough shot. This is the epitome of fantastic defense. While Leonard hit a lot of tough shots all night, you can’t really call into question Mbah a Moute’s defensive chops on a night like this. The stat sheet doesn’t show great defense a lot of the time, but there was a lot of it. Credit Luc Mbah a Moute for that.

It might seem weird to say that a guy who had a 120.4 Defensive Rating on the night was a difference maker, but he was. Mbah a Moute had a +20.3 Net Rating in his 21:54 of action. The starting lineup itself had a +17.3 Net Rating in 22 minutes. Mbah a Moute’s impact on this team is not really felt that much in traditional box scores. You have to dig deeper to find it. While he is somewhat of a negative offensively at times, his ability to give the Clippers a versatile wing defender against one of the game’s most premier players is something you can’t take for granted or even overlook. On this night, Luc Mbah a Moute was awesome – even as Kawhi Leonard splashed in tough shot after tough shot. The team might be onto something here.