Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals was as wild and woolly as one imagined, though the lingering fallout could eventually scuttle San Antonio’s championship hopes.
The Spurs have plenty to worry about. San Antonio gave up a 25-point first-half lead in Game 1, falling to the Golden State Warriors by a 113-111 mark in the opening contest of their conference final series after looking dominant to begin the afternoon. Stephen Curry overcame a slow start typical of his entire Golden State crew, tossing in 40 points in the win over San Antonio, which was without Kawhi Leonard for the final 20 minutes.
Leonard, already smarting from a sprained left ankle that cost him an appearance in San Antonio’s last contest (a Game 6 series-clinching victory over Houston) originally re-injured the ankle after stepping on a teammate’s foot on his own sideline in the third quarter. A few plays later, Warriors center Zaza Pachulia did his part to put San Antonio’s series in peril:
A pair of Leonard free throws gave the Spurs a 78-55 lead, but San Antonio’s injury-wrecked roster was no match for Golden State’s waves of depth and dead-eye shooting.
Pachulia added insult to injury by nailing a jumper directly after Leonard left the game for good, the first basket of what turned into an 18-0 run for the Warriors. In fewer than 3 1/2 minutes of action, the Warriors drew what once appeared to be yet another blowout San Antonio road win into a two-possession game, mostly on the back of the man who made a point to start up his own personal run even before Leonard limped off the floor.
Stephen Curry, at 40 points, made 14-25 shots on the afternoon, overcoming a 4-10 start to lead his team to its ninth win in nine tries during the 2017 postseason. His 19-point, third quarter performance was rather affecting:
“We just controlled what we could control, and play smarter,” Curry told ABC’s Doris Burke following the win. “They were playing well but we were beating ourselves pretty much the whole first quarter. Not getting stops, not getting rebounds. It’s the playoffs, though, and you have to take a win any way you can get it.”
Any which way, huh, Steph?
The eyes of the sporting world will be on Pachulia, following the uneasy Golden State win. Not exactly known for dirty play, the first-year Warriors center has made a name for himself as a cranky yet versatile veteran big man for six different clubs. His close-out work on Leonard, not typical for the lugubrious 33-year old Pachulia, will be studied a great deal as the Spurs await word on the severity of Leonard’s ankle injury.
The Warriors hadn’t played in six days, and it showed in the first half. Golden State missed 15 of 21 shots in the first quarter, needed until the 5:05 mark of the second quarter to hit its first 3-pointer, and shot 34 percent from the field in the first half. Klay Thompson looked to be a bystander, missing five of his six first shots, while Draymond Green struggled with foul trouble and San Antonio big man LaMarcus Aldridge.
Aldridge, the hero in San Antonio’s Game 6 victory and hoped-for determining factor in this series, finished with 28 points in the win, including 17 in the first half alone. He was able to wrest free for position in front of Green, making hay with either shoulder on an afternoon that should have served as an extension on his recent hit of good press.
That’s what they all think, until the fourth quarter hits.
LaMarcus missed six of eight shots in the fourth quarter, alongside two clanged free throws, watching as far too many 50/50 looks spun the wrong way at the exact wrong time. Green, fresh after sitting for chunks of the first three quarters due to foul trouble, worked defensively with what must have looked like a brand new set of legs to LMA.
Left as the Spurs’ only go-to offensive force with Leonard out and starter Tony Parker sidelined for the rest of the postseason with a quadriceps injury, Aldridge could not so much carry the load as he did act like one, repeatedly, down the stretch of the loss.
On Golden State’s side, Kevin Durant was sure not to leave teammate Curry as the only Warrior rolling on Sunday.
The first-year GSW stud managed 34 points on 21 shots, spreading out his attention throughout the four quarters and generally acting as an opportunity player throughout. Like in this play, which gave Golden State a 101-100 lead — it’s first advantage since the opening minutes:
Broken plays and 50/50 balls often tend to favor the team that has Durant on the court. Playing mostly power forward down the stretch alongside a revitalized Green, KD freed himself up for spot-up treys and drives to the front of the rim following loggerheads that spilled over into becoming loose balls.
The pell-mell style suited the Warriors.
Without Leonard and even Parker to lead the offense, San Antonio was left to ask reserve forward Jonathan Simmons to run the show as a point forward for parts of the fourth quarter, with little reward. Starting point man Patty Mills missed seven of eight looks from the floor and was a non-factor throughout, and the muddled lineups resulted in a series of lost plays defensively for a team that ranked as the NBA’s top stoppers in 2016-17.
San Antonio, what was left of it at least, just didn’t know each other out there. The Spurs were left wanting offensively and spied chattering angrily defensively after endless Warrior spread attacks forced strange defensive bedfellows in the Spurs rotation. Not even a fourth-quarter right (shooting) wrist injury to Curry or Golden State’s daffy rotation work (under interim head coach Mike Brown) could give San Antonio the buffer it needed.
In defeat, even in the third-largest halftime comeback in NBA postseason history, San Antonio kept its wits but never its advantage. San Antonio talks (and usually showcases) a good gestalt game, but this is still a crew that pinned its championship hopes on a singular star many, many months ago. Without Kawhi Leonard, most teams would be toast. San Antonio, all full of movement and options even at its worst moments, looked every bit the part of a burned breakfast once Kawhi left.
All that was left was for Stephen Curry to take care of the rest:
… leading to the winning, Don Nelson-styled bouncer that put San Antonio away for good with ten seconds left in Game 1:
It was a packed afternoon. Everything you’d expect from these two teams, clubs that battled it out for the top spot in the West for the bulk of 2016-17, with Golden State featuring an interim head coach in Brown who worked his way up from the bottom with San Antonio Spurs, subbing in for Steve Kerr, who still managed to make Game 1 prior to addressing his crestfallen players at the half:
— NBA (@NBA) May 14, 2017
Kerr’s talk didn’t have the Warriors bursting through the locker room walls, as San Antonio managed to build upon its 20-point halftime lead prior to Leonard’s removal from the game.
It’s that knowledge that will leave a knotty feeling with some of the Warriors for the next few days, in anticipation of the team’s Game 2 pairing with the Spurs on Tuesday.
They’ll be forced into defending a half-second’s worth of work from new teammate Pachulia, the team will have to consistently remind that Durant and Curry combined for 74 points in the win, and Golden State will have to hold its breath every time a member of the media asks anything of Green that gives off the impression that Golden State was somehow lucky in pulling out a Game 1 win.
No, San Antonio was unlucky. It was caught above the feet of a player in Pachulia who appeared to learn from one of San Antonio’s own, in former Spurs swingman Bruce Bowen, and will have to live with the knowledge that its best player was taken from the team during a play by Pachulia that, at best, can charitably be described as “dangerous.”
San Antonio doesn’t tilt, though. The Spurs will lose a game, possibly a series, and perhaps eventually count out a season in full. They will not tilt.
They might have to blink. Golden State hasn’t lost since the games started counting again.
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