OAKLAND -- While Kawhi Leonard was back at the team hotel ordering dinner, the rest of the San Antonio Spurs were getting handed their lunch.
The similarity seemed to be that everyone on both ends of the Bay Bridge had their feet up.
There would be no emotional heroics, no inspirational efforts to be memorialized and passed down through generational lore.
What the world learned from Game 2 of the Western Conference finals is that the Golden State Warriors are not the Houston Rockets, susceptible to get picked apart by any Tom, Dick or Dejounte.
And, oh yes, taking that Kawhi fella out of the lineup is like taking the air out of the basketball. Whatever you’re left with is deflated.
“It’s not what I expected,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after the Warriors' 136-100 conquest. “I'm disappointed. The only way I can process this is, I think it’s not about O's and X's or rebounds or turnovers or anything like that. I think we've maybe felt it too much, Kawhi being gone, in the sense that I don't think -- as I watched -- I don't think they believed.
“And you have to believe. I don't think as a group they really did, which means probably a little bit feeling sorry for themselves psychologically, subconsciously, whatever psycho-babble word you want to use. That's the way I process it. I don't think they started the game with a belief. And it showed in the lack of edge, intensity, grunts, all that sort of thing. That was disappointing.
“It looked pretty collective to me. I don't think it was one guy who didn't believe, and he infected everybody else or anything like that. I think as a group, they just let themselves down.”
The Spurs are 1-4 under Popovich when they trail a best-of-seven series 2-0, and none of those other situations were even remotely close to being head-locked by these above-it-all Warriors, who are undefeated in the playoffs, have won 11 games in a row and 25 of their last 26 going back to March 14.
This was always going to be a heavy lift for the Spurs. Now it might as well be an elephant atop a boulder holding a grand piano that’s weighing on their shoulders.
Any enmity toward Golden State center and public enemy No. 1 Zaza Pachulia for causing the badly sprained left ankle that sidelined Leonard or extra spark to compensate for their missing MVP candidate was not evident.
“It was clear to see that as a team we didn't come out like we wanted the game and they just protected home floor,” said Jonathon Simmons, who took Leonard’s place in the starting lineup and was the only Spur to show a pulse.
“LaMarcus has to score for us. He can't be timid. He turned down shots in the first quarter. He can’t do it. You've got to score."
There was no win-one-for-the-Gipper moment. In fact, the Gipper might have been left in a ditch at the side of the road.
“I think everyone sensed it for sure,” point guard Patty Mills said. “The whole building sensed it. They came out and played really well. They hit a ton of shots and played great. They shut us up early.”
The Spurs are back to dissecting LaMarcus Aldridge like a lifeless frog in biology lab. The shrinking power forward couldn’t have been more out of sight if he had covered his head with a towel and hid beneath the San Antonio bench. He didn’t make his first basket of the game until the 4:55 mark of the second quarter, at which the Spurs trailed by 24. He finished with eight points and four rebounds in 26 minutes.
“LaMarcus has to score for us,” Popovich said. “He can't be timid. He turned down shots in the first quarter. He can’t do it. You've got to score. Scoring has to come from someplace. I think he’s got a major responsibility in Game 3 to come out and get something done. Whether it’s for himself or teammates. They come after him, to find somebody, take good shots. He's got to do it. No doubt about.”
“I took the wrong approach,” Aldridge said. “I thought I would come out and move the ball, but I ended up taking myself out of rhythm and out of the flow of the game…I kind of got lost in the flow of just standing around.”
What the Spurs can’t rely on is the return of Leonard in Game 3 at home in San Antonio as a magic elixir to cure what ails them. While it’s true that the Spurs had a 78-55 lead when he limped off the court in the opener and have been outscored 164-108 since then, he can’t pull the wagon now to four wins out of five games by himself.
In addition, there is no rock-solid guarantee that Leonard will be back, despite the four-day break break until Saturday's Game 3.
History shows a similar situation back in 2000, when the Spurs were defending champions and franchise foundation Tim Duncan injured his knee four games before the start of the playoffs. It was a minor cartilage tear and Duncan could have played on the injury. But the team chose to take the long view on Duncan’s career, sat him out, and the Spurs lost in the first round to the Suns. It was Popovich’s way of saying he’d always look out for Duncan. It also happened that Duncan was a free agent that summer, re-signed and went on to lead the Spurs to four more championships.
So if the 25-year-old Leonard is not very close to being fully recovered from a second painful sprain to his left ankle in the past two weeks, he could stay on the shelf. Of course, it won’t matter a bit if the rest of the Spurs act like they'd rather just sit there.
“You can't sugarcoat it or (say) if we had just made a couple shots, we would have been right there,” Popovich said. “That's pretty lame. So, call it like it is, and we didn't come to play. We felt sorry for ourselves, we need to get slapped and come back and play Game 3 and see who we are.”
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