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It is now evident to even the most fervently hopeful San Antonians that the Spurs are not advancing to the 2017 NBA Finals, not without Kawhi Leonard.
For a second consecutive game, Leonard could only watch on Saturday night as his teammates fell into an 0-3 canyon in their NBA Western Conference Finals matchup against the Golden State Warriors. This time, the lost by a 120-108 count on their AT&T Center home court.
There was a modicum of consolation to Game 3 because the Spurs didn’t go easily, as they had in absorbing a 136-100 drubbing in Game 2 on Tuesday night in Oakland. And, in this one, the Spurs actually owned a lead into the first minutes of the second quarter and remained within striking range through most of a game played under ever more adverse circumstances.
The result, though, is the same, regardless of the final score. The Warriors used a 13-0 run third quarter run, all 13 points coming from scoring leader Kevin Durant, to take command of a tight game. Durant finished with 33 points, on 11-for-19 shooting.
Gregg Popovich knew the difference between Games 2 and 3, and appreciated the distinction.
“They competed really well,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “Couldn’t ask any more from them, competitiveness-wise.”
It was hardly a surprise that it was ultra-competitive 39-year-old Manu Ginobili who showed his teammates how to put up a fight. The veteran of 14 Spurs seasons scored 21 points, his high game this post-season. He played with the fire that has characterized his entire career because, he said, it was the least he and his teammates could do.
“I was pretty sure that the competitive edge was going to be there,” Ginobili said. “Game 2 was a tough one, for multiple reasons. We all know why. We all knew we were going to be able to bounce back today, at least emotionally, and play a better game. The fact is that it’s just too tough. We are missing Kawhi’s offense and defense in this series, and, of course, Tony (Parker).”
On Saturday, the bad conditions for the Spurs included the loss of a third key contributor. Veteran big man David Lee suffered an unspecified left knee injury in the first quarter and did not return to the game. He joined Leonard (sprained left ankle) and Parker (ruptured left quadriceps tendon) on the injured list.
But, it was Leonard whom the Spurs most missed. A first-team All-NBA selection and one of three finalists for this season’s Most Valuable Player Award, Leonard wanted to give it a go in Game 3 on the left ankle he sprained during the third quarter of Game 1. But, Popovich always takes the long view, which played into his decision to overrule his best player.
Popovich consulted the team’s medical and athletic training staffs before opting to sit Leonard for a second straight game, then owned the decision.
“We spoke to everybody,” Popovich said. “In the end, I guess it’s my decision. He’s not thrilled that he’s not playing, but he’s not ready.”
It’s not the first time Popovich has been cautious with a franchise player during the playoffs. He famously held Tim Duncan out of a first-round playoff series against the Phoenix Suns after Duncan suffered a late-season injury to his left knee. Duncan didn’t play at all in a 3-1 (best-of-five) first round loss, then went on to win the 2001-02 and 2002-03 Most Valuable Player Awards.
That experience clearly has informed Popovich’s cautious approach to player injuries.
“I think we do what every team tries to do, you take care of your players, you do what’s best, hopefully, in the short run and the long run, and it matches up,” he said. “But sometimes you’ve got to make a tough decision. I think our philosophy helps some players extend their careers.”
The Spurs now face the most daunting situation possible in a best-of-seven playoff series, and NBA history suggests it is more than merely daunting. There have been 121 teams that have faced 0-3 deficits like that which the Spurs now see before them. None have overcome such a deficit, and that could play into Popovich’s decision about Leonard when Game 4 arrives on Monday night at the AT&T Center.
If he again opts to err on the side of long-term caution with Leonard, Monday’s game may well be the last of the season for the Spurs.
Ever the realist, Ginobili understands the enormity of the task.
“For us to win, we have to play at a 10 level and they have to play at a 7. And, we have to try to make them play at a 7, and play our best game. We know it’s going to be very tough. We don’t know what’s going to happen with Kawhi. So, we have to be out there, compete, feel good about yourself, give everything you have, and if it’s enough, great. And, if it’s not, great, too. You shake their hands and wish them good luck. You go home, hug your kids again, wake up the following morning and life goes on.”