For 24 minutes, the Spurs had it rolling. For 24 minutes, the Western Conference Finals didn’t look like a heavyweight title fight, but a one-sided sparring session. Kawhi Leonard dominant on both sides of the court. The San Antonio inside game that bludgeoned the Rockets doing the same thing to the Warriors — LaMarcus Aldridge a force. Pop mixing and matching his veteran roster, and sending the message that no matter how dominant Golden State was in the first two rounds, the Spurs weren’t rolling over. And then… Kawhi Leonard rolled his ankle:
Just like that, an ankle turned the game. And likely the series. Because for as good as the Spurs were with Kawhi leading the charge, they fell apart without him. As singularly brilliant as Leonard played in those 24 minutes — 26 points, 8 boards, 3 dimes, and some dominant on-ball defense that threw a wrench in the Warriors’ offense — the Spurs were lost without him.
There was no doubt the Warriors were going to make their run even with Leonard on the floor but without him, the Spurs had no way to slow them down with Steph Curry and Kevin Durant got going. Gregg Popovich pretty much admitted as much after the game:
An 18-0 run. Another blazing comeback. And a 113-111 win, a reminder that until the clock zeroes out — Golden State always has a chance. Especially with that fire power. Especially with that self-belief. And especially with Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, two guys that hoisted the team on their back and scored 71 in the second half — a comeback triggered by Curry’s 19 in the third and Durant’s monster 4th. The third largest halftime comeback in NBA postseason history and it almost felt inevitable.
And with a chance to steal game one and rip the home court advantage, the Spurs let it slip away. And with Game 2 set for Tuesday and Leonard’s status unclear, the series might already be at a tipping point.
Because that Game 6 wizardry that Pop pulled off against Houston isn’t happening against the Warriors. And for all the positives you can take away from San Antonio’s big first half — they’re all pretty empty when you blow Game 1 and your MVP candidate is going in the MRI tube.
The Warriors comeback leaves the Spurs in a really tough spot. Win Sunday, give Kawhi Tuesday off and he’s got 5 full days to get healthy before playing back in San Antonio with the series split — Game 2 essentially house money after getting out of the Bay with a split. But with Golden State ripping back that W, now you’re likely looking at a 0-2 hole if Leonard can’t answer the bell — and even if he can, he’ll be one tweak or foot roll from the brink —
So an ankle turns not just the game, but maybe the series. Because without Kawhi near his best, the Spurs can’t win. And after giving away Game 1 and losing their MVP candidate, San Antonio is already on the brink.