Analysis: Spurs deteriorate without Kawhi Leonard, Warriors take advantage

Update: Kawhi Leonard appears unlikely to play in Game 2, according to Coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.

Despite the pain many Spurs fans (including myself) are feeling over last night’s heartbreaking loss to the Warriors in the Oracle Arena, for better or worse, last night’s game exposed weaknesses on both teams.

One of the reporters on KSAT 12, during a Spurs pre-game show, suggested that the Spurs would have to play “four perfect games” in order to win this series. The Spurs seemed to do just that – at least up until the third quarter.

At the end of the first half, the Spurs outscored the Warriors 62-42. Kawhi Leonard outperformed Steph Curry with 18 points in the first half compared to 14 points for Curry.

The Warriors hit 38% of their field goals and 22% of their field goal attempts in the first half. They turned the ball over 10 times. The only positive for the Warriors was that they hit 74% of their free throw attempts.

The Spurs were still leading the Warriors by over 20 well into the third quarter. However, it was clearly Leonard’s injury from Zaza Pachulia that led to things going south for the Spurs.

Leonard finished the game scoring 26 points, shooting 54% from three-point range, and shooting 100% of his free throws.

Right after Leonard left the game, the Warriors scored 18 unanswered points, cutting their deficit to only five points.

The Warriors went on to win the game 113-111. Curry ended up scoring 40 points in this game, improving his field goal percentage to 54%, and he made 44% of his three-point attempts.

The biggest weakness the Spurs seemed to have in this game was their inability to stabilize their gameplay without Leonard. There were several times towards the end of the first half where the Warriors would play very fast-paced and hit a quick shot, yet the Spurs would follow up with a noticeably slower but confident pacing and counter to whatever points the Warriors scored in the previous play. This kept the Warriors from cutting the deficit to single digits by the end of the first half. Without Leonard in the lineup, the Spurs didn’t seem to know what to do other than attempt to match their pacing to that of the Warriors, which didn’t work out for them. The Spurs’ defense was perfect in terms of guarding key Warriors players like Curry and Kevin Durant in the first half, but it clearly deteriorated after Leonard’s injury caused him to be taken out of the game.

The biggest weakness for the Warriors is trying to overcome the Spurs’ defense. Clearly, Leonard’s removal in the third quarter deteriorated the Spurs’ defense. This allowed the Warriors to play at a much faster and more confident pace for the rest of the game, which helped lead to their victory over the Spurs. However, when the Spurs are on their “A” game defensively, like they were up until Leonard’s injury, the Warriors simply need to find a way to outscore the Spurs early on and force the Spurs to play especially harder.

Whether or not the Spurs have a chance to win this series will all rely on if Leonard will return to play for the rest of the series. If Leonard can return and if the Spurs can play very similarly to how they played in the first half of this game, they may very well win this series in six or seven games. Leonard is undoubtedly the center of the Spurs’ lineup. Some Spurs fans seem to not realize that the Spurs’ Leonard-less victory in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Houston Rockets was largely a result of poor defense on the part of the Rockets. A team simply doesn’t win a game by nearly 40 points if the other team had a good game, defensively-speaking.

If it turns out that Leonard can’t play for the rest of the series, the Spurs simply need to find a way to stabilize their gameplay when the Warriors want to play efficiently fast-paced. If the Spurs cannot do this without Leonard, we may very well be looking at another 4-0 sweep on the part of the Warriors.

Opinion: Small deficit vs. significant loss

A friend of mine texted me commenting on how small the loss was for the Spurs in yesterday’s game. Yes, it is true that the Spurs’ loss was only by two points. On paper, that’s hardly a significant loss. But the context of this game could make this small deficit a very significant loss, depending on the outcome of the next game.

The Spurs were playing like a championship team last night in the first half and up until Kawhi Leonard’s injury. It seems like every team not named the Cleveland Cavaliers fears the Warriors, but the Spurs did not seem to fear the Warriors for most of the game last night. They were playing the Warriors not with fear, but with a sense of determination to win the Western Conference Finals and return to the NBA Finals for a rematch of 2007’s Spurs-Cavaliers Finals series.

I think once the Spurs lost control of the game, they weren’t playing as confidently as they were with Leonard in the lineup. Needless to say, this is only just one game.

Game 2 will be extremely critical for the Spurs. If they can somehow pull off a win tomorrow night, they’ll find themselves taking this series back to San Antonio for Games 3 and 4 tied at 1-1, which will undoubtedly help their chances at winning this series.

If the Spurs can get themselves together and continue playing in championship mode for the remainder of this series, we may very well see them in the Finals again this year — for the first time in the post-Duncan era.

In macroeconomics, there’s a concept called deficit and surplus. If the government increases its debt, there is a deficit. If the government reduces its debt, there is a surplus. In sports terms, the Spurs experienced a huge surplus with Leonard in the game, but that huge surplus became a small deficit after Leonard’s injury.

Whether or not yesterday’s game was just a small deficit or a significant loss for the Spurs will be determined by who wins the game tomorrow. Let’s hope it was just a small deficit.