Getty / Ezra Shaw
More than 24 hours before tipoff of Tuesday’s Game 2 of the Spurs’ NBA Western Conference Finals matchup against the Golden State Warriors, Gregg Popovich told the unvarnished truth: Without their best player, an already difficult task had become nearly impossible.
With Kawhi Leonard at the team hotel, rather than Oracle Arena, the Spurs suffered one of the worst playoff losses in franchise history, a 136-100 drubbing that exposed the frailties of a team that on Sunday afternoon believed it had a solid chance to upset the No. 1 seed in the league before losing Leonard to a sprained left ankle.
But, while few truly expected the Spurs to beat one of the greatest teams in NBA history without their leading scorer and best defender, nobody believed they would play as passively as they did in the first half of Game 2, when the Warriors led by as many as 31 points. They were slightly more competitive in a meaningless second half, outscored only by 8 points, 64-56.
“Tonight, it’s not what I expected,” Popovich said. “I’m disappointed. It’s not about Os and Xs, or rebounds and turnovers, or anything like that. I think we felt it too much, Kawhi’s being gone, in the sense that, as I watched, I don’t think they believed. And, you have to believe, and I don’t think, as a group, they really did, which means a little bit probably feeling sorry for themselves, psychologically, subconsciously.
“That’s the way I process it: I don’t think they started the game with the belief, and it showed in the lack of edge, intensity, grunt, all that sort of thing. That was disappointing, but when you’re playing a team that’s as good as Golden State, you’re going to get embarrassed if that’s the way you come out. And, we did, so that’s the deal.”
Popovich expressed the same thoughts to his players – during the game; at halftime; and afterwards – and is counting on a different approach when the series moves to San Antonio for Game 3, scheduled for Saturday, at AT&T Center.
“As a group, they just let themselves down,” Popovich said. “The truth always sets you free, and you can’t sugarcoat it. Call it like it is. We didn’t come to play. We felt sorry for ourselves and need to get slapped and come back and play Game 3 and see who we are. That’s what I’m anxious for.”
That will be a lot easier if Leonard can use the three days between games to recover from his ankle sprain and is able to suit up for a game that is now critical, if not yet a “must-win.”
Popovich had done his best to fire up his team for Game 2 when he used a Monday media session to rage against what he called the dangerous, unsportsmanlike play by Warriors center Zaza Pachulia that resulted in Leonard’s ankle sprain. He expressed his anger and asserted this his team would have won Game 1 had it not been for Leonard’s injury.
But, it was up to his players to direct their emotions in a positive way, and that did not happen. LaMarcus Aldridge, who had scored 34 points when Leonard missed Game 6 of the Spurs’ series against the Houston Rockets, played passively, start to finish, and scored only eight points, on 4-for-10 shooting.
Frightened by their narrow victory in Game 1, a 113-111 outcome that went right to the final possession of the game, the Warriors were fully prepared and took immediate advantage of Leonard’s absence.
Two-time Most Valuable Player Steph Curry made 4 3-point shots and scored 15 points in the first quarter alone. He scored a game-high 29 points.
Starting in Leonard’s stead, Jonathan Simmons produced a career-high 22 points. He was the only San Antonio player who could be judged to have overachieved.
“Jon was one of the very few who came to play,” Popovich said. “I thought Jon was great. At both ends of the floor he was intense, and he played to win, for sure.”
But, Simmons was the exception, and Popovich didn’t take long to go to his bench and by game’s end he had three rookies on the court: Dejounte Murray, Davis Bertans and Bryn Forbes. No Spurs starter played more than 26 minutes and 30 seconds, and 39-year-old Manu Ginobili, one of the most competitive players in franchise history, logged only 5 minutes.
Easily the best moment for Spurs fans occurred in the second quarter when Pachulia hung on the rim after a dunk and then appeared to injure his left foot when he landed awkwardly.
It probably won’t keep him out of Saturday’s Game 3 at AT&T Center, and San Antonians likely will prefer that, too. Those who attend the game will enjoy booing him every time he touches the ball.