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Seemingly on their way to what would have been one of the more inspiring playoff victories in franchise history, the Spurs instead suffered a devastating 113-111 loss in Game 1 of their NBA Western Conference Finals playoff series against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday afternoon at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif.
The impact of the loss is apt to be far greater than just one game in a best-of-seven playoff series, and not simply because of the heartache of giving up a 23-point lead in the final 20 minutes of the game.
Of far greater impact is the potential loss of superstar small forward Kawhi Leonard, whose departure from the game with a re-injured left ankle dovetailed with the beginning of an 18-0 Golden State’s run that totally turned the outcome.
Leonard, who missed Thursday’s Game 6 of the Spurs’ Western Conference Semifinals series against the Houston Rockets, already had scored 26 points on Sunday when he stepped on the foot of Warriors center Zaza Pachulia as he landed after attempting a jump shot with 7:55 remaining in the third quarter. He remained in the game only long enough to make the two free throws he was awarded after Pachulia was called for fouling him on the shot.
Leonard underwent an MRI exam to determine the extent of the damage done by Sunday's ankle injury. On Monday, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told reporters in the Bay Area that his star player likely will miss Tuesday's Game 2, and accused Pachulia of an "unsportsmanlike" play.
The Spurs had survived Leonard's absence in Game 6 against the Rockets, who imploded in the face of intense defensive pressure from the Spurs on Thursday. When their go-to player departed on Sunday, leaning on head athletic trainer Will Sevening for support as he walked to the locker room, they unraveled without him. The Warriors went on an 18-0 run that ignited their fans and clearly unsettled the Spurs.
“We got a little rattled,” Popovich said in a post-game interview televised live by NBA-TV. “[The Warriors’] defense picked up. We got in a little bit of mud, couldn’t get anybody to score, and they’re fairly talented. And it showed.”
Without Leonard as a go-to scorer, the Spurs tried to play through power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who had scored 20 points before Leonard’s injury. But the hero of the Game 6 win over Houston (34 points) made only 2-of-10 shots and committed three of his game-high six turnovers after Leonard went to the locker room. The Warriors took their first lead since the first quarter with a little more than four minutes left in the game.
Though the Spurs recovered enough to lead with 2:12 remaining in the game, the impact of Leonard’s injury was too much this time.
“Yeah, well, it was huge,” said 39-year-old veteran Manu Ginobili, who scored eight of his 17 points in a valiant attempt to secure the win without Leonard. “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, and that's when we struggled, because we couldn't have the guy that we run those plays and get them off their pressure.
"So, yeah, we struggled a lot without him, and it's a tough break. He's coming from an injury on that ankle, and he tweaked it twice in the last minute he played, so we couldn't react to his absence.”
Afterwards, Leonard acknowledged the pain that forced him to the locker room was intense.
"Just very painful because I tweaked it before," Leonard said. "It’s just hard to tell right now. I definitely couldn’t go in that last, third quarter, the six minutes. But we’ll see how I get better each day.”
Popovich's terse summation of what transpired while Leonard watched, via TV, from the locker room: “Tough loss. Great opportunity, and we let it slip away."
Should Leonard miss additional games beyond Game 2, the Spurs' chances of advancing to another appearance in the NBA Finals will be next to nil against a team that entered the series as a heavy favorite, even with Leonard available to the Spurs.
Leonard’s potential absence in Game 2 is mitigated somewhat by a series schedule that has three days in between Games 2 and 3, giving him time to recover from the ankle sprain. That would have been cause for optimism had the Spurs held on for a win that would have given them home court advantage in the remaining games, regardless of the outcome of Game 2.
As it is, they know their chances of recovering from both the Game 1 loss and the potential loss of Leonard for at least Game 2 is more than daunting.
“It’s the toughest part,” Ginobili said. “I always prefer to lose by 20 a game like this, in which case the home team relaxes a little bit and feels good about themselves, and we are hurt, angry. And, the opposite happened. We played an outstanding game for half, and a little bit [more]. And they outplayed us. They were more aggressive. They made more shots.
“So, it’s tough, and besides, if it wasn’t bad enough, we lost our best player, who was struggling already with a bad ankle. So, it’s hard to see the positive, even though we were 20 [points] up. A very bad outcome for the game.”
It was both bad and historic. The Spurs led by as many as 25 points Sunday, making the loss the first ever in a playoff game for a Popovich-coached team after 316 previous games in which they led by at least 25.