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Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors is one of the most fascinating what-ifs in NBA history. The degree to which the game twisted along with Kawhi Leonard’s left ankle under a Zaza Pachulia close-out is so significant that it demands a rewatch two years later, now that Kawhi gets a rare shot at basketball redemption with the Toronto Raptors.
The first thing that you are reminded of when watching it again is that a limping Leonard actually took — and made — the post-Pachulia foul shots that gave the Spurs a 78-55 lead four minutes into the third quarter. Danny Green had to stop the clock by fouling Stephen Curry seconds later to actually get Leonard off the floor.
Kawhi did not return to the game or the series, and Golden State outscored San Antonio 58-33 over the final 20 minutes to steal the opener, 113-111, before completing the commanding conference finals sweep. That much we remember.
When all was said and done, the Spurs were plus-21 in 24 minutes with Leonard on the floor against the heavily favored Warriors and minus-85 in 168 minutes without him. So, is there anything the Raptors can learn from this and apply to the Finals? It turns out there is plenty, chief among which is that Leonard is a freaking machine.
This was Kawhi’s line in just over two quarters against one of the best teams ever assembled: 26 points (7-13 FG, 1-4 3P, 11 FT), eight rebounds and three assists.
Gregg Popovich entered with a perfect game plan, and the Spurs executed it to perfection in those initial 28 minutes. LaMarcus Aldridge bullied Golden State’s smaller defenders in the post early, and when the Warriors bulked up their front line as a result, Leonard abused David West and Zaza Pachulia in the pick-and-roll.
The Raptors have the personnel to mimic this strategy, with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka filling roles played by Aldridge, Pau Gasol and David Lee in San Antonio. Kevon Looney gives the Warriors a more athletic big to pair with Draymond Green as a counter in the pick-and-roll, but Toronto still has the size advantage to do what the Spurs did on the offensive glass. Leonard grabbed four of their eight offensive rebounds before his injury, as they outscored the Warriors 36-16 in the paint.
Leonard and Aldridge combined for 44 points on 26 shots prior to the injury, forcing double-teams all over the court and opening the floor for San Antonio’s shooters. Danny Green, Jonathon Simmons and Manu Ginobili were a combined 6-for-7 from distance in the first 28 minutes.
The Raptors scooped up Green in their trade for Leonard, and with Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet also capable of knocking down open threes, they can hope for positive results on the perimeter.
And when all other options were exhausted, the Spurs always had Leonard, who could drive on Durant, draw a double from Thompson and rise over both of them.
Rewatching Kawhi’s performance in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals was a nice reminder that what he just did to the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks is nothing new. The Raptors need him to remind us again in these Finals.
Defensively, Leonard was mostly matched opposite Durant and Thompson, who together shot 5-of-17 from the field through 28 minutes, but Kawhi’s defense had broader ripple effects. He is the rare player whose instincts allow him to close passing and driving lanes without risking too much damage by his top assignment.
Everything changed when Pachulia stepped under his ankle. And maybe before that. We forget that Leonard initially suffered the left ankle sprain in Game 5 of San Antonio’s conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets and missed Game 6. He returned for Game 1 against Golden State, only to tweak the injury when he stepped on Lee’s shoe on the sidelines after escaping Durant for a corner three. He left the game for 35 seconds and re-aggravated the ankle on his first shot back.
Regardless, the damage was done. Without having to worry about the superstar whose gravity pulls every rotation in his direction, Golden State’s defense suddenly felt comfortable clogging the paint for Aldridge and chasing shooters off the arc. Nobody’s looks were quite as clean, and the Warriors outscored the Spurs in the paint over the final 20 minutes while holding them to 0-of-7 shooting from distance.
On the other end, the Spurs had no answer for Durant, who scored 20 of his 34 points on 7-of-10 shooting after Leonard exited their last playoff meeting early. Without Kawhi to mask some of the defensive limitations of their bigs, the Spurs opted for smaller lineups, and all of a sudden Golden State became the bully.
Now, Durant’s absence in Game 1 and maybe longer in this Finals flips the script. The Warriors may be the ones left without an answer for Leonard. Golden State can throw Thompson and Andre Iguodala at him, but having that superstar wing who, when all else fails, can both manufacture offense and serve as the last line of defense unlocks so many more lineup combinations that can tilt matchups in your favor.
We will never get an answer to whether the Spurs would have prevented Golden State’s march to the 2017 championship with a healthy Leonard, but this Finals gets us closer than ever to posing that same question again, and that’s better than what we get with most of the NBA’s most fascinating what-ifs. Is it Thursday yet?
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