Why the Warriors' thrilling comeback hurt so much

OAKLAND, Calif. – The inevitability of the Golden State Warriors playing the Cleveland Cavaliers for a third straight year in the NBA Finals becomes more palpable with each passing day. Fans of the league won’t be too disappointed when those two dominant teams and their radiating star power finally come together in June. But Sunday afternoon brought about some much needed intrigue during a postseason unusually limited of drama.

The San Antonio Spurs came to Oracle Arena intent to ruin the season-long hype. Kawhi Leonard embodied the seriousness of their party-crashing purpose, ditching the runway fashion as he strolled off the team bus, through the metal detectors and into locker room before Game 1 of the Western Conference finals in nothing more than his team sweatsuit. Leonard then went about slugging the Warriors with silent efficiency, showing Kevin Durant that he has advanced well beyond being a system player and nearly setting off one of those rare frenzies that always occur on the occasion of a Golden State loss.

That all changed with two unfortunate plays in the second half: when his already tender left ankle tripped over seated teammate David Lee and later that same bewitched ankle landed on the foot of Warriors center Zaza Pachulia. Unlike the resolve they displayed without Leonard in the final two games of their previous series against Houston, the Spurs unraveled, lacking the composure or the firepower to fend off the Warriors.

Kawhi Leonard’s injury casts a pall over the Western Conference finals. (AP)

The Spurs surrendered an unconscionable 18 straight points after Leonard limped off the court as Golden State rallied from a 25-point deficit and got a 113-111 Western Conference finals victory. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant became flamethrowers and reminded everyone how they won the past three MVP awards. But the thrilling comeback win comes with a “Kawhasterisk.” One of the frontrunners for MVP this season is hobbled and a series that has been anticipated for three years is in danger of being a mere footnote on another Warriors postseason demolition.

“It’s very hard to react from a game like this,” Manu Ginobili, the lone holdover from the Spurs’ past four championship runs, said. “I always prefer to lose by 20 than like this. We are hurt. We are angry. If it wasn’t bad enough, we lost our best player that was struggling with a bad ankle. So it’s hard to see the positives, even though we were 20-something up. A very bad outcome of the game.”

Before the Warriors became the light years envy of the league, and an entertaining underdog that sometimes made winning a yawn-inducing routine, the Spurs were the standard for the Western Conference. Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have had to wait four years for a chance at revenge against the first team to ruin their postseason. The past two years, these teams appeared destined for playoff clashes. But that was until Chris Paul’s off-balance runner upended the then-defending champion Spurs in the first round in 2015. San Antonio responded with its best regular season in franchise history and inadvertently pushed the Warriors to a record 73 wins. But another conference finals clash was denied when Durant and Russell Westbrook decided to end Tim Duncan’s career.

The Warriors and Spurs were again the best two teams in the regular season. Though they were the only pair to surpass the 60-win threshold, Golden State was a heavy favorite and separation is even greater because of a postseason that continues to siphon talent from San Antonio. Tony Parker tore his knee in Game 2 of the previous round. Three games later, Leonard stepped on James Harden’s foot and coach Gregg Popovich worked some motivational and schematic magic to end the Rockets’ season.

The way Popovich had his undermanned unit prepared to shock a well-rested Warriors team on Sunday is the reason he is in the short conversation as the greatest NBA coach in history. His opposition in this series – coach Steve Kerr and Mike Brown, the fill-in while Kerr recovers from that cranky back injury – spent time learning the Spurs way underneath him. But he can’t win a shootout with a “Pop” gun, making Leonard’s ankle woes so deflating – especially because the Warriors are probably done spotting San Antonio 25-point leads for the rest of this series.

“You think so? Did you notice that?” Popovich said in response to a question about his team being rattled without Leonard. “We let it slip away.”

LaMarcus Aldridge reverted to his Portland Trail Blazer prime in the Spurs’ closeout in Houston, but he admitted that trying to replicate that performance when Leonard went down Sunday was difficult because the injury occurred during the game and disrupted a good rhythm. Leonard and Aldridge have rarely, if ever, looked better together, and the Spurs know that they squandered an incredible opportunity to leave Oakland with a win – while also stealing some time for Leonard to rest and recover with Game 3 on Saturday in San Antonio. They won’t win this series without Leonard and rushing him back could expedite their exit.

“Right now, I’m just disappointed,” Aldridge said after scoring a team-high 28 in his conference finals debut. “Of course, it’s going to be tough. He’s our leading scorer and our go-to guy, but guys have to step up and try to take some of that load and try to be better out there. Got to play better defense and make less mistakes and we’ll be good.”

Leonard isn’t one for outward emotion, but there was no denying his pain when he screamed Sunday in agony the first time he tweaked the ankle: He put both hands on his cornrows for a few seconds, as if to say, “Why is this happening again?” He tried to fight through it but couldn’t hide the pain after landing on Pachulia’s foot in a play that led to widespread social media speculation about whether Pachulia deliberately dipped underneath him.

“Like on purpose? No, he was contesting the shot,” Leonard said afterward.

Pachulia also denied the accusation, telling NBA.com, “When you are 6-11 and you play hard, you get blamed for a lot of things.” His incredulous reaction to being assessed a foul – hopping away as he placed his hands above his head – reflected how Pachulia was more reckless than malicious. With reporters gathered around him after the game, Pachulia grew even more enraged by the assertion that he would try to harm Leonard. “That’s really stupid,” Pachulia said. “I hate anybody going down like that. I’m an athlete, too, so I know how it feels.”

Back in late February, Durant was on the wrong end of a collision with Pachulia, spraining his MCL and missing five weeks after, but he came to the defense of the Warriors’ wild, clumsy and extremely physical big man. “Zaza’s not a dirty player,” Durant said. “You’ve got to time that perfectly if you want to hurt somebody. I mean, we’re not that type of team. Kawhi’s an unbelievable player and we have nothing but respect for him. We wish that he gets healthy, but we were just trying to contest a shot. Our guys were playing hard.

“It’s an unfortunate situation. I wish it didn’t happen. But I don’t think it was intentional. You can’t listen to people on Twitter. They’re irrational. So, I don’t know. But hopefully [Kawhi] plays next game and his ankle gets better, but it wasn’t intentional at all.”

Leonard is the second player to go out this postseason after an opponent failed to give a shooter the necessary space to land. Markieff Morris had to exit Washington’s Game 1 loss against Boston when Al Horford crowded him. The league has a rule in place to protect players but it’s not enough of a deterrent to prevent more incidents.

Whether Pachulia’s dangerous slide was intentional, this series doesn’t have the same appeal without Leonard, who leaves himself open to a more severe setback each time he lands on that ankle. Leonard’s lack of emotion on the court has led to him being characterized as a robot, with Memphis coach David Fizdale joking in the first round that he “bleeds antifreeze.” This postseason has revealed both Leonard’s ascension as a bona fide superstar, capable of putting a franchise on his back, and his physical frailties. After the game, Leonard walked from the shower to the training room to have his ankle taped, slipped his sweats back on, and left the arena without showing the slightest limp. Only he knew the extent of the pain. Only he knew if he was capable to return to delay – or perhaps deny – what appears to be a preordained Finals three-match.

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