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Spurs-Warriors: Kawhi Leonard injury turns series into a problem without a solution

OAKLAND, Calif — It’s 7:36 p.m. local time and I’m supposed to be watching the top-seeded Golden State Warriors host the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the second game of the Western Conference finals. There’s more than half of the third quarter still to play. And I’m not really even watching from my spot on press row.

It’s not that I’m unaware of what’s unfolding in front of me — Stephen Curry just drilled another ridiculous shot and the Oracle crowd roared its approval. It’s not that I’m literally not watching the game. It’s just that I’m not watching the game the way I should be. I’m not watching in hopes of finding a nuanced takeaway or piece of analysis that I can extrapolate to the series as a whole, because at this point, there are no more nuanced angles left to exhaust.

That part of the series is already over. That part of the series ended when Kawhi Leonard landed on Zaza Pachulia and injured his already injured ankle in the third quarter of Game 1. 

Nuanced analysis is over, because this series boils down to two things and two things only: 

  1. The Warriors have two MVPs in Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, the best defensive player in the NBA in Draymond Green, and someone who might go down as the second-greatest shooter ever in Klay Thompson
  2. The Spurs don’t have their MVP in Kawhi Leonard.

That’s it. Series over. The Spurs were only going to have a chance to beat the Warriors with Leonard playing like the MVP candidate he was — something he did before he hurt his ankle, which is why they held a massive lead at the time of his departure. Without him on the floor altogether, they’re not just hurt on the defensive end; their offense is also in shambles. They’re lost without Leonard.

In the immediate aftermath of his injury, the Spurs dropped a game in which they held a 20-point second-half lead. The Spurs MVP didn’t play in Game 2. They lost Game 2 on Tuesday night by 36 points behind a barrage of Curry 3s and an incredible performance by the Warriors’ bench. Only one of the Spurs’ starters — Jonathon Simmons — landed in double figures. LaMarcus Aldridge scored eight points.

After the game, Gregg Popovich said that the Spurs got rocked because they didn’t believe they could win without Leonard.

Popovich is right. This isn’t about “O’s and X’s, or rebounds or turnovers, or anything like that.” 

This is about a massive talent deficiency. Can you blame the Spurs for not believing? They’re trying to slay The Mountain without their only dependable weapon. They’re going up against a Death Star, which doesn’t feature a convenient exhaust port, without their Luke Skywalker. 

He’s considered questionable for Game 3, but before Tuesday’s game, Popovich spoke like someone who was going to exercise extreme caution in his handling of the future of his franchise.

“The thing that worries me is he did it again,” Popovich said. “So one would logically think maybe it will take longer, but I’m hoping that’s not true and that we’ll have him for Game 3. But I don’t know and I don’t think we’ll know until Friday or Saturday.”

Truth be told, it doesn’t really matter anymore in terms of the final outcome. Barring an unforeseen miracle, the Warriors are going to the NBA Finals for a third straight year. Leonard’s hypothetical return will only impact the Warriors’ quest to enter the Finals with a 12-0 record in the playoffs. 

If you’re a fan of the Warriors, that’s awesome. If you’re a fan of basketball, that’s not awesome. Sure, if the Warriors and Cavaliers (who are also unbeaten) end up completing their trilogy with another all-time classic series, no one will remember the lackluster build up. But there’s no guarantee that happens. Problematically, we’re now banking entirely on two teams to save the playoffs. A two-month process has been reduced to one series.

I can’t offer a unique solution to the problem. Some have suggested that other stars join forces so that there’s a better competitive balance across the league. Instead of giving the Warriors one true challenger, let’s give them three or four. I’m a fan of that idea, but that’s completely out of our hands because we can’t force players to sign with certain teams.

I also don’t have anyone to blame. I can’t blame the Warriors for adding Durant, drafting an absolute steal in Patrick McCaw, rejuvenating JaVale McGee‘s career, and developing Curry, Thompson and Green into the players they are today. They deserve nothing but credit — not blame — for that. I can’t blame the Spurs, because they’re without Leonard and Tony Parker. I can’t direct my outrage at the NBA as a whole, because the NBA can’t be blamed for Leonard’s injury. If Leonard doesn’t get hurt, we would’ve likely spent Monday debating if the Warriors could overcome the first deficit of their postseason run. Instead, we were left questioning if Pachulia did or didn’t intentionally step underneath Leonard. We’re left judging intent even though it’s impossible to judge. 

Here’s what I know: The Warriors are the best basketball team on the planet. Even if Leonard hadn’t gotten hurt, they likely would’ve advanced to their third straight Finals. Part III of Warriors v Cavaliers is probably — hopefully — going to be peak basketball. But process matters. And the process we’ve watched so far isn’t fun. It’s not fulfilling the primary purpose of basketball. It’s not entertaining. It’s a disaster movie more boring than “The Core.” 

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The Warriors are so much better than the Leonard-less Spurs that they’re boring.
USATSI

It’s 9:13 p.m. local time now and Curry is at the podium for his press conference. I’m listening, but I’m not listening the way I should be, because even Curry can’t offer a unique explanation that gives us an interesting way to look at what happened tonight. 

The only explanation is that Leonard’s injury robbed us of a series we deserved. The only answer is that this sucks.