Discussion of Kawhi Leonard’s ankle injury dominated the conversation in the run-up to Tuesday’s Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. Was Golden State Warriors center Zaza Pachulia’s close-out dirty? Should San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich have railed against Pachulia’s play when he’s defended similar actions from his own players in the past? And just how fortunate were the Warriors to come back to win, given they trailed by 23 points when Kawhi exited to the locker room?
Leonard’s status and the play that caused it became a source of such consternation for a simple reason: he is an MVP candidate with the abilities to push the title-favorite Warriors to their breaking point. While San Antonio crushed the Houston Rockets without him in a series-deciding road Game 6 to reach the conference finals, Golden State poses challenges unlike any other team. It was difficult to imagine the Spurs competing in Oracle Arena without him.
The Warriors’ 136-100 blowout win on Tuesday night proved those fears to be well-founded. Golden State exceeded its 16-point first quarter output from Game 1 a little more than six minutes into the contest and cruised from there, leading by 17 after the first and by a 72-44 margin at halftime.
The Spurs made several third-quarter runs to cut the lead to as few as 20 points, but the Warriors always had an answer to ensure their stars would get to rest for most of the fourth quarter. Game 2 felt over shortly after it started, and the Warriors now travel to San Antonio for Saturday’s Game 3 with a 2-0 advantage. Leonard appears likely to play in that game, and it’s safe to say that his team needs him.
Regardless of Leonard’s status, the Warriors started Game 2 with a clear desire to avoid the slow start that dogged them in Sunday’s opener. Stephen Curry nearly ensured it by himself, scoring 15 of his game-high 29 points in the opening period. The Warriors superstar shot 4 of 5 on 3-pointers in the first, providing one of his patented scoring bursts on a night when the Spurs simply had no answer. Add in a sterling defensive effort and contributions across the board, and the Warriors coasted to a 33-16 lead after the first quarter.
Curry’s early scoring grabbed attention, but Game 2 ended as a blowout because the Warriors did not let up. They entered the break having shot 28 of 43 from the field (65.1 percent) and 11 of 19 from deep (57.9 percent) with 23 assists, a mark of both their efficiency and the ease with which they diced up the Spurs defense.
Kevin Durant joined Curry in double figures with 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting (and finished with 16 on 6-of-10), but the performance of the bench without the injured Andre Iguodala made the biggest difference. The Warriors’ reserves shot 11 of 12 from the field with 25 points in the first half, and that’s simply an untenable outcome for the Spurs, given the firepower of Golden State’s starting lineup.
Not even the loss of Zaza Pachulia to a right heel contusion could slow them down. The Warriors’ starting center missed all of the second half after hurting himself on a dismount from a first-half dunk, which is either karma for hurting Leonard in Game 1 or a sign that he’s not agile enough to injure an opponent on a closeout with any kind of intent. We’ll let you be the judge.
GSW has outscored SAS, 130-77, since Kawhi Leonard left Game 1 with an ankle sprain. Makes you wanna scream title of Kendrick's latest album
— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) May 17, 2017
The absence of Leonard offered the Spurs a ready-made excuse for their problems, but their excellent play without him against the Rockets meant that there were clearly other issues at play. For Gregg Popovich, the answer was clear — they just didn’t believe they could win without their best player:
Gregg Popovich on tonight: "It's not what I expected. I'm disappointed … I think we've maybe felt it too much, Kawhi being gone."
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) May 17, 2017
Pop: "You have to believe … I don't believe they did. … I don't believe they started the game with the belief. That was disappointing."
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) May 17, 2017
It’s hard to argue. The Spurs rely heavily on Leonard at both ends and were always in danger of getting blown out without him, but they’re also an organization known for professionalism and testing more talented teams no matter who’s out of the lineup. The team that took the court in Oakland looked uncertain of its ability to compete and suffered for it.
The lone exception was Jonathan Simmons, who scored 22 points on 8-of-17 shooting as Leonard’s replacement in the starting lineup:
Everything else was a mess. LaMarcus Aldridge earned special attention from Popovich after the game after scoring just eight points on 4-of-11 shooting, but even a big game from him might not have made much difference. It got bad enough that Pop decided to rush to the finish in the closing minutes of garbage time:
Why is this game flying without a stop here in last minutes? Because Popovich called back-to-back timeouts to get rid of the mandatory stops
— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) May 17, 2017
The good news for the Spurs is that they’re likely to get Leonard back on Saturday and can use their poor effort in Game 2 as motivation for the rest of the series. However, the Warriors’ Game 1 comeback and this blowout laid bare that they’re not going to get back in this series without a strong effort from Kawhi. The Warriors learned a lesson from their poor start to Game 1 and won’t give the Spurs such openings again. If Leonard doesn’t (or can’t) play like we know he can, then a matchup that looked excellent before his injury could end as yet another uncompetitive playoff series.
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