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Spurs fans who were anticipating an exciting chase for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs over the final two weeks of the regular season got a splash of cold water in their faces Wednesday night when the Golden State Warriors wiped out a 22-point San Antonio lead on their way to a 110-98 victory that virtually eliminated the top seed possibility for the Spurs.
Instead of being a single game behind the Warriors in the loss column, with eight games remaining to catch them, the loss left the Spurs three games behind in the loss column, and left to ponder the problems that remain to be solved before the playoffs begin the second weekend of April.
Golden State’s Steph Curry scored 29 points to lead the Warriors to a 61-14 record, supported by a season-high 15 points off the bench from former Spurs forward David West. Kawhi Leonard suffered through one of his worst shooting games of the season, 7-for-20 and 0-for-5 from beyond the 3-point line, but managed to lead the Spurs in scoring with 19 points.
The Spurs fell to 57-17 but would have to suffer a complete collapse to fall out of the No. 2 seed in the West – three wins in the final eight will secure second place – but Wednesday’s outcome was a reality check that Golden State remains the team to beat in the NBA.
“Reality check?” 39-year-old Spurs guard Manu Ginobili asked. “We knew who we were playing. One of the best teams of the last few years. Seventy-three games won last year, 65 this year or even more? It was not going to be easy. We knew it was going to be tough.”
Coming off one of their most impressive wins of the season, a 103-74 humiliation of the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday, the Spurs for one quarter looked a lot like the team that won the 2014 NBA title with a combination of beautiful passing and lock-down team defense. They jumped out to a 15-0 lead and ran it to 23-3 in the first seven minutes of the game, holding the team that leads the NBA in scoring, at 115.8 points per game, to 1-for-11 shooting.
The lead swelled to 29-7 later in the period, and Spurs partisans inside AT&T Center were rocking the house.
Those same partisans were stunned to silence by what happened after that, as the Spurs seemed unable to stop the Warriors.
It was the sort of situation that in past seasons would have led Tim Duncan to gather his teammates together after a time out and remind them of precisely what they needed to do to regain control of a game. Guard Danny Green lamented the loss of Duncan’s leadership in assessing what he called a troubling trend for this season’s roster.
“Time and time again this year we’ve known what we had to do but we just couldn’t execute it,” Green said. “Put your foot on another team’s throat; put your foot on the gas and don’t look back. But, we just weren’t able to execute. In the past, Tim would kind of settle us down, gather us together, and help us execute it better. Make some stops, talk to Pop, certain adjustments, rebounding. Whatever needed to be done, he would figure it out. He wouldn’t allow stuff like that to happen. Not that it never happened, but it just didn’t happen that often.
“The last few games it’s happened, except for Cleveland. It’s something we need to learn as a group and get over that hump.”
Green played one of his best games of the season, making 4-of-6 3-point shots and scoring 16 points, but took little consolation from his production.
“I didn’t play perfect,” he said. “Turned the ball over a couple of times. Communication defensively. Could have helped my guys. Got to be a better leader. Like I said, the vets have got to be better with teaching and leading these younger guys and newer guys to learn how to finish teams off and not let them back in it.”
The Spurs vow to learn from Wednesday night’s collapse.
“Every game that we win or lose we learn from,” Green said. “I’m sure we’re going to watch some film on it tomorrow, see the mistakes we made and, hopefully, adapt and adjust. Hopefully we get a chance to play them in the future. That would be good.”
Indeed, another game against the Warriors would be a very good thing for the Spurs. Since the two teams are going to finish 1-2 in the Western Conference, it would be Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
By then, the Spurs should understand that no lead is safe against the Warriors, especially not a 22-point lead in the first quarter.