When a healthy Kawhi Leonard may not even be enough

Marco Benitez

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Members of the San Antonio Spurs watch from the bench during the second half of Game 2 of the NBA basketball Western Conference finals against the Golden State Warriors, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

When the San Antonio Spurs look back at this season and ask what the turning point was, they will say that it was probably at the 7:54 mark of the third quarter in game one of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors. 

After building a 25-point lead in the first half and coming into the third period with a 20-point halftime advantage, the Spurs were looking to shock the NBA’s no. 1 team with a game one win on the road. Then at that 7:54 mark came the defensive challenge of Warriors center Zaza Pachulia on Kawhi Leonard’s long two-pointer, with Leonard landing on the foot of Pachulia and re-aggravating his left ankle sprain. Leonard would not be able to come back and the Warriors rattled off an 18-0 run and put themselves back in the game. From that point on, the Warriors outscored the Spurs 58-34 the rest of the second half, to come away with 113-111 win.

With Leonard out as well for game two, it wasn’t just the series lead that the Warriors took, but according to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, it was also San Antonio’s “belief.” Without their best player and MVP candidate, the Spurs, you could say, did not even show up for the second game. From the get-go, the Warriors rattled off a 25-12 first quarter surge, hitting 60 percent from the field off of 11 assists, and 6-of-9 from long distance to finish the quarter with a 33-16 advantage, pretty much deciding the game early on. They continued their barrage in the second quarter, outscoring the Spurs 39-28, relegating the second half to an extended garbage time. Steph Curry finished with a game-high 29 points (8-of-13 FG, 6-of-9 3FG) in just three quarters worth of play. 

For the Spurs, it was hard enough not having their best player, but their second-best player, LaMarcus Aldridge, barely made an impact, putting in a “timid” performance in Pop’s words, hitting just eight points on 4-of-11 FG. Yes, just 11 field goal attempts for the Spurs’ best big man. There was no fight even for the guys you expected to step up in the absence of Kawhi. Danny Green (5 points, 2-of-7 FG), Patty Mills (5 points, 2-of-6 FG), Pau Gasol (7 points, 2-of-5 FG) all turned in sub-par performances. It was only Jonathon Simmons who stepped up, scoring a team-high 22 points (8-of-17 FG) with three rebounds and three assists.

Had the Spurs been equipped with a complete lineup (Parker and Leonard at 100 percent), they probably would have had a 50-50 chance of winning the series. Without Parker, the Spurs were underdogs, but still had a fighting chance had they been able to get great performances from Manu and Pau and Danny Green outside of Kawhi and LMA’s expected production. But without Leonard, the Spurs chances go from slim to none. 

Leonard is their best all-around player, their best scorer and playmaker, and not to mention a two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year whom they could match up with either Curry or Durant without having to send help. Without him in game two, the Spurs’ offense struggled to create shots and ended up taking ill-advised attempts as the clock expired. From a 109.6 ORTG in game one, the Spurs ORTG dropped to 94.1 in game two. Their DRTG also took a hit, from 115.6 to 126.7. Without their MVP candidate and All-NBA first team member, there was simply no chance against a Warriors team with three All-NBA team members, two of which are former MVPs and one a DPOY candidate. Consider them extremely fortunate not to get swept by Golden State. 

Assuming Leonard is able to suit up and play in game three at the AT&T Center, and assuming that he is even close to 100 percent, he will have to muster a LeBron-esque four-game stretch (think 2016 NBA Finals), for the Spurs to even have a chance of barging in to the Finals after going down 0-2. Aldridge, Gasol, Ginobili, Green, Simmons, and Mills will also have to play at peak form for the next four games to even have a chance against an extremely confident Warriors squad with all the momentum heading into game three. 

Anything less than the Spurs’ best basketball of the season for the next four games, then consider just fast forwarding to game one of the NBA Finals, where it looks like the Warriors will face LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers once again for the third straight year to settle their Finals’ series tie once and for all.

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