OAKLAND — If the last few weeks of the playoffs have been all about stretching to their limits, the San Antonio Spurs might finally have tip-toed right up to the breaking point.
When Kawhi Leonard rose up for one more jumper with 7:55 left in the third quarter, San Antonio had built a 21-point lead on the Warriors. When he came down, crashing to the floor in pain after landing on the foot of Zaza Pachulia, the Spurs chances of survival in the Western Conference finals may have collapsed with him.
Leonard went to the foul line, made a pair of free throws and then two seconds later limped off to the locker room having sprained his left ankle.
How much is too much for the Spurs? They lost veteran point guard Tony Parker to torn a quadriceps tendon in Game 2 of the previous series against the Houston Rockets. Then, Leonard sprained the left ankle and missed all the overtime period in Game 5 and sat out the clinching Game 6 entirely. Still the Spurs won both.
Moving on, they kept saying.
But moving on against the Warriors, the best team in the NBA, is an entirely different matter. Leonard had already piled up 26 points, eight rebounds and three assists when he left the game and without him, the Spurs lost their focus and sense of stability at both ends of the floor. From the time Leonard left, the Warriors ripped off an 18-0 tear.
“It was huge,” said Manu Ginobili. “We need Kawhi to create, to score. It means a lot to this team and we were doing really well. When he went down, the Warriors were starting to pick up, to feel good about themselves, to increase the pressure on everybody else. That’s when we struggled, because we didn’t have the guy that runs those plays and get them off their pressure.”
Gone was the ball movement, the way to keep the Golden State defense back on its heels. For the first time in a couple of weeks the Spurs appeared lost, visibly shaken.
“They upped their defensive pressure and we kind of got rattled from that, not knowing what to go to and being organized,” said Patty Mills. “For the majority of the game we were organized. We were trying to take the air out of the gym. But upped their aggressiveness defensively and it kind of caught us out of rhythm.”
“It’s a tough loss, for sure. I think it motivates us knowing that we played the way we did for that amount of time. … Not gut-punching at all. This is the first game of a very long series. We understand that.”
San Antonio Spurs guard Patty Mills
Without Leonard in the game, the Spurs lost their ability to match the Warriors on the backboards as a 23-17 advantage at halftime flipped to 26-14 for Golden State in the final two quarters. Even the Spurs battled back and pushed to a 106-103 lead at the two-minute mark, the Warriors got two huge offensive rebounds and that eventually produced a tying 3-pointer by Stephen Curry.
All the while, Leonard was in the Spurs locker room helpless to do anything.
“I saw (the lead) at eight when I turned the game on,” Leonard said. “Yeah, it was pretty tough (to watch). But I still have faith in them. They pulled out that last one (Game 5 vs. Houston) at home. So, it’s just having faith.”
Leonard, who had tweaked his left ankle just a few minutes earlier when he took a shot from deep in the left corner and landed on the foot of someone on the Spurs’ bench, did not buy into the chatter and speculation that Pachulia had tried to hurt him.
“Did he step under it?” Leonard repeated when asked about the play. “Like on purpose? No. He was just contesting a shot. The shot clock was coming down. I’ll have to see the play.”
Leonard said he does not know if he will be able to play in on Tuesday night. If not, he would have a full week before Game 3 in San Antonio on Saturday.
“I feel good. Get back healthy. I have faith in my teammates and we’ll see what happens in Game 2. We’ll see tomorrow and the next day.”
Without Leonard, the Spurs not only were burned the Warriors, but couldn’t generate offense themselves. Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge finished with 28 points and eight rebounds, but shot just 2-for-9 in the fourth quarter.
While regretting the lost opportunity, the Spurs were not ready to pity themselves.
“It’s a tough loss, for sure,” Mills said. “I think it motivates us knowing that we played the way we did for that amount of time. We were almost there. Not gut-punching at all. This is the first game of a very long series. We understand that. It should give us some momentum, if anything, to know that we’re this close. But a long way to go, for sure.
“As we go we’ll keep finding answers, work it out. It’s good to know that we do have some answers. It will be interesting to see how we go when we move on. Like I said, we’ve got guys, which is a good thing.”
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.