OAKLAND, Calif. -- Kawhi Leonard walked slowly and deliberately through the quiet loser’s locker room. No limp, no brace, no tape covering the sprained left ankle that buckled with 7 minutes, 53 seconds left in the third quarter of the San Antonio Spurs’ 113-111 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Sunday in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
In fact, the All-Star forward never deviated from his normal, pigeon-toed gait on his way to the athletic training room.
The only strangeness witnessed was the fact that the training staff sat Leonard at a table and taped up the injured ankle after the game, before the forward pulled on a Spurs sweat suit and strolled out to the team bus.
“I feel good,” Leonard said. “I’ll get back healthy. I have faith in my teammates, and we’re going to see what happens [in] Game 2.”
That’s likely going to involve Leonard playing the role of spectator instead of savior on Tuesday in what was already expected to be a lopsided series. It is now tilted heavily in favor of the host Warriors.
A league source said that Leonard would undergo an MRI on Monday morning. When the forward originally suffered the injury in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets, a source explained San Antonio’s philosophy for dealing with injuries, which dates all the way back to the early Tim Duncan years and provides something of a clue for how the Spurs might proceed with Leonard throughout this series.
In the season after San Antonio’s first championship, Duncan tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee on April 11, 2000, Game No. 78 of the season. That forced him to miss the final four games. As the Spurs prepped for the postseason, Duncan tried his best to show the staff that he could move well enough to help his team win. The problem was that a bit of loose cartilage that moved around remained in the knee and posed a risk Popovich didn’t want to take.
Popovich shut down Duncan for the postseason, and the Spurs lost an opening-round series 3-1 to the Phoenix Suns.
Leonard’s injury isn’t as significant as Duncan’s. But the source said that situation started a philosophy by Popovich of the team always striving to “do what’s best for the player” when dealing with injuries, even if it means faltering in the playoffs. In this case, it’s probably best for Leonard to sit, considering that after Game 2 on Tuesday, these teams won’t clash again until Saturday in San Antonio. That would give Leonard nearly a week to rest the sore ankle.
“Of course, it’s going to be tough,” said power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who led the Spurs with 28 points and eight rebounds. “He’s our leading scorer and our go-to guy. But guys have to step up and try to take some of that load and try to be better out there. It’s about defense right now: got to play better defense, make [fewer] mistakes, and we’ll be good.”
Leonard left in the third quarter after shooting a corner 3 and landing on the foot of Warriors center Zaza Pachulia. He had already poured in 26 points on 7-of-13 shooting to go with eight rebounds. After Leonard left, the Warriors outscored the Spurs 58-33 in a contest the home team trailed by as many as 25 points.
The rally registered as the largest comeback win in a conference finals game since 2002, when Boston overcame a 26-point deficit to beat the Nets. A healthy Leonard certainly would have given San Antonio a much better chance of preventing that.
Prior to the injury, Leonard held Warriors star Kevin Durant to 14 points on 4-of-11 shooting in 23 minutes, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the 15 minutes after Leonard’s injury, Durant blasted San Antonio for 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Durant finished with 34 points on a healthy 11-of-21 shooting from the field.
After Leonard limped off the court with Spurs head trainer Will Sevening, the Warriors drained 21 of 36 shots from the field (58.3 percent), including six 3-pointers, to go with 11 assists and seven turnovers. The Spurs, meanwhile, countered with 13-of-35 shooting (37.1 percent), including 0-for-7 from deep with just four assists and nine turnovers. Durant and Stephen Curry combined to outscore the Spurs 35-33 by themselves in this span.
Without Leonard on the court for the final 19:53 of the game, the Warriors outscored the Spurs 17-4 off turnovers and 20-2 on the fast break. The Spurs also were outrebounded 24-13 down the stretch.
“I think it was the pressure,” point guard Patty Mills said. “They upped their defensive pressure, and we kind of got rattled from that, not knowing what to go to and being organized. For the majority of the game, we were organized. We were trying to take the air out of the gym. But they upped their aggressiveness defensively, and it kind of caught us out of rhythm.”
Asked whether the Spurs became rattled in Leonard’s absence, Popovich quipped, “Good observation. You’re correct,” before adding, “We made too many mistakes. Play a team like that, can’t make the mistakes we made. I thought the rebounding really hurt us, as is evidenced by the last -- I think it was Kevin [Durant] that finally made it, or was it Klay [Thompson]? He shot the 3, then got the rebound back and shot another one, and the third one finally went down. It was huge, but it was kind of indicative of what kind of mistakes we might have made. Tough loss, great opportunity, and we let it slip away.”
That continues only if San Antonio can’t find anybody to pick up the slack given Leonard's possible absence for Game 2. That's not to mention that the Spurs are without veteran point guard Tony Parker due to season-ending surgery to repair his ruptured left quadriceps tendon.
Without two of its most significant contributors in Game 2, San Antonio will look to accentuate its strengths, such as the duo of Aldridge and Pau Gasol inside. It also appears that San Antonio has a superior bench after its backups outscored the Warriors' reserves 39-13, making 16 of 29 shots from the field.
“We had it where we wanted it, but unfortunately it slipped away. Now we’ve got to think of Game 2 now. It was hard to see Kawhi go out. He was having a heckuva game for us,” Gasol said. “It’s a big challenge for us [to play without Parker and potentially Leonard]. Tony is a great leader with a lot of experience on this stage, a guy that knows how to get it done and our point guard. Then you’ve got Kawhi, who is one of the best players on the planet.
"But we can’t change those things. We hope Kawhi can play whenever he can play and help us, and we know Tony won’t be able to help us. We can’t really control those factors. So we’ll just try to stay together and compete with the tools that we do have. We have a very deep team, a talented team. We’ll go out there and do that.”