Playoffs 2018 West First Round: Warriors (2) vs. Spurs (7)

Kawhi Leonard's absence felt by both San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors

Defending champion concedes 'big difference' without Spurs' 2014 Finals MVP causing havoc on both ends of the court

OAKLAND, Calif. — There are two important games being played simultaneously in this Western Conference first-round series: Those on the floor, and those in the shadows, and the Spurs are losing both at the moment.

Essentially, they’re trailing the Golden State Warriors and also failing in their attempt to get their franchise player back in uniform and in time to save their season. And unless something drastic happens in both situations, the Spurs look destined to go 0-for-2.

Being down 1-0 in the best-of-seven to the Warriors is easy to explain. Golden State has Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and a determination to repeat as NBA champions, so they’re strong out of the gate in these playoffs and are anxiously pouncing on the disadvantaged Spurs. That’s evident. After looking lethargic and uninterested over the last few weeks of the regular season, and perhaps understandably since there was nothing to play for in particular, the Warriors are ready to wake up.

The other contest is more complex and head-scratching for the Spurs. Clearly, there’s friction or at least a major wedge between Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs although nobody knows how it arrived to this point and the extent of the damage and where it’s going. Or maybe, nobody’s willing or able to explain. It’s not even evident that Kawhi is the problem, or that he has a personal beef with coach Gregg Popovich and the organization, since he doesn’t talk publicly or reveals much when he does. Yes, it’s complicated.

Here’s the facts: Leonard has played only nine games this season, citing a quad injury which normally needs a half-season to heal properly based on similar injuries. While the Spurs are here preparing for Game 2 on Monday, he’s in New York doing rehab work. The Spurs medical staff cleared him two months ago but Leonard sought a second opinion and his experts haven’t given the green light, so he’s working out on his own. Also, Leonard has one year left on his current contract and, because he made the All-NBA team last season, he qualifies for the “super max” extension which the Spurs can give him this summer.

Here’s what’s fuzzy: Leonard’s communication with Popovich and the staff has, by all indications, been professional and pure if limited and murky. That’s because Leonard’s inner circle of family members aren’t on the same page, it seems, with the Spurs. And his future as the successor to David Robinson and Tim Duncan in San Antonio, which once seemed like a layup, isn’t so automatic anymore.

That’s what led Popovich to say this, on the eve of Game 2, regarding Leonard’s status for the Warriors:

“You’ll have to ask Kawhi and his group that question.”

And this:

“So far they say that he’s not ready to go. So, we can’t do anything until that happens, then we would have to decide what’s going on from there.”

They. His group. We. Not exactly a response or words that projects harmony and understanding and a kinship.

A report by Yahoo! Sports on Sunday revealed that Leonard will not be available for the rest of the playoffs.

What’s weird is Leonard was exactly the type of superstar the Spurs were accustomed to having: Someone quiet, who didn’t care about his “brand,” unselfish with teammates, coachable and respectful to the demanding Popovich, excellent all-around on the floor, rose to the occasion in the post-season and single-minded in a pursuit of a championship.

Also, just a few weeks ago Popovich refused to question Leonard’s desire to resume playing; after all, Leonard was a Finals MVP and never hid his desire to compete.

What happened?

How much of this situation is due to Leonard’s contract extension? Usually, money plays a role in these matters, either a sneaky one or obvious one. Also, there’s no guarantee that Popovich will get the OK from ownership to pay a super max in excess of $200 million to Leonard after such a weird and unsettled season. Even before money is discussed, the Spurs must ask him and “his people” this fundamental and direct question this summer: Do you want to be here?

If so, the two sides must begin to lay out the ground rules and forge a better understanding about his injury, and also map out his financial future.

If not, then the Lakers and Clippers (Leonard is from LA) will likely receive a call, among others. His value is obvious; a pesty and aggressive 6-7 swingman, Leonard might be the best man-to-man defender in basketball and improved his shooting range enough to be a top-10 scorer.

But that’s an issue for July. In the meantime, here in the playoffs, Leonard is the most important player and he hasn’t broken a sweat. The Spurs are undermanned against the biggest force of the last five years, and that could make for a quick series.

“They’re missing No. 2,” said Durant, citing Leonard’s jersey number. “So yeah, they look different from that aspect. They play the same way and it’s always about the game. All the rest of that stuff doesn’t matter to Pop and the rest of the players. That’s why they’ve had so much success over the years. And they play a good brand. They believe in each other and they don’t beat themselves. It’s a good combination to have but obviously they’re missing their best player and we’re just trying to take advantage of it.”

Without Leonard, there’s no second source of offense next to LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spurs are leaning on past-their-prime players such as Rudy Gay, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.

Without Leonard, Thompson shot 11 of 13 in Game 1 and had a number of open looks that he conceded he normally doesn’t get against the Spurs.

“It’s a big difference,” Thompson said. “Kawhi is MVP caliber. Not having him affects them drastically. It was always fun because he was one of the best defenders in the game. I took it as a challenge to have a great game with Kawhi covering me, knowing what he brings and the energy he uses on every possession. He’s an amazing player on both sides of the ball.”

But right now, he’s a ghost, a rumor, a person of the past and a non-factor when it matters most. That’s never been said before about Kawhi Leonard and the post-season.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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