2017 Western Conference Finals
San Antonio 111, Golden State 113
Warriors lead series 1-0

Not like this.

I didn’t think the Spurs had much of a chance of winning this series, but I at least wanted an honest go of it. I wanted the best the Spurs had to offer being pushed to their limits. I wanted to see how the team responded, and what fight they had in them to push the seemingly invincible Warriors.

We’ll still see that fight, surely; but I don’t know how much resistance they can offer without their best player and lynchpin of the whole operation on both sides of the ball.

What a start to Game 1. After 24 minutes, every Spurs fan was dreaming the impossible “what if?” A 20-point lead against a lethargic Warriors team and a real opportunity to steal one in Oakland. If there was a path to winning this series, the first half of Game 1 laid it bare: steal Game 1, catching the Warriors a bit rusty and overconfident; take 2 of 3 games in San Antonio (likely 1 of Game 3 or 4, and Game 6). Just get to that Game 7 and see what was possible.

Twenty eight minutes in, it sure looked like it could be an even fight and a long series. When Kawhi went down, the Spurs were up 23 points, 78-55. They had dominated the first half and were matching the Warriors point-for-point in the third as they made their push. While nobody expected Golden State to roll over like Houston, it sure felt like the Spurs could hold this lead.

But not without Kawhi Leonard. After he went down, the Warriors rattled off an 18-0 run that felt like it took about 23 seconds. The rest of the Spurs fought hard and proudly, staying closer in the final minutes than most expected. Ultimately, the talent gap without Leonard was far too wide, and the Warriors stole a game (and likely the series) out from underneath the Spurs.

With Kawhi, would the Spurs have won? It seems not only probable but likely. Even without him, they still only lost by 2. You have to believe Kawhi is worth a 3-point swing on either end of the floor in 20 minutes, considering they were up by 23 with him in 28 minutes.

In those final 20 minutes, the Spurs just had nowhere to go to consistently score or create any sort of offensive movement. LaMarcus Aldridge had a great start to the game in tandem with Kawhi; without Kawhi, it was too much for him. He works best being decisive and quick, and he was anything but being the sole offensive hub at the end of the game.

I don’t want to be too hard on LaMarcus; he was great in the first half and instrumental in building that huge lead. But this game highlighted the best and worst of Aldridge. The first half showed how the Kawhi-LaMarcus duo can work to great effect; the second half showcased his ultimate limitation, and why he can be no better than a second-option on a truly great team.

I suppose we have to discuss the elephant in the room: Zaza Pachulia. I’m wary to ascribe intent to anyone’s actions with so little knowledge. We definitely have history of Zaza making questionable plays, and we have specific history of Zaza being aggressive towards Kawhi in a truly dangerous way. I think it’s entirely possible to be reckless without being dirty, but I also think this might be a distinction without a difference.

Reckless play is meant to intimidate the opponent and always make them second-guess their actions around you; by necessity, a reckless player must have little regard for consequences. When you have no regard for consequence, you give up the right to intent. Zaza made a reckless play leading to a horrible outcome. Whether he meant to or not seems irrelevant.

So what happens now? The MRI reveals no structural damage to Kawhi’s ankle, which is wonderful news. Pop has already said Kawhi won’t play Tuesday in Game 2, but he is officially listed as “doubtful”. Game 3 isn’t until Saturday, so there’d be a lot of time off between Games 2 and 3 to rest and heal if Kawhi sits one more game out. That seems like the safe bet.

I also wouldn’t put it past Pop to just shut Kawhi down entirely, knowing the future of the team is more important than these next few games. He did it years ago with Duncan, and it’s informed his thinking and core beliefs ever since. Honestly, it might be the right move. The odds of the Spurs winning this series are small, and a hobbled Kawhi doesn’t help them.

Still, I can’t get those first 28 minutes out of my head. The Spurs looked so good. Everything fell into place perfectly around Kawhi, and we were seeing an aggressive version of Kawhi we hadn’t seen yet in the playoffs. He was going to another gear. He was the best player on a court that included Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. For 28 minutes we all believed we could beat the Warriors.

It’s hard to let that feeling go. But we probably should. The future is more important. This is the long game.

Game 2 is Tuesday night in Oakland.

Go Spurs Go.

Photo credit: Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group