“He’s obviously a huge presence for them, um ….but their system is the same”
This was Steph Curry’s answer to how Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals changed after Kawhi Leonard’s ankle injury. The second ankle roll made him exit the game for good in the third quarter. The two-time MVP seemed to shrug off the impact that Leonard had on the game and showed little respect for the two-time DPOY. The narrative that Kawhi is not necessary for the team to succeed because of the “system” in San Antonio, has been slowly gaining traction since the Spurs blowout win against the Rockets in Game 6. The Spurs showed how different a championship contender is when they are missing their best offensive and defensive player.
The Spurs numbers after Kawhi Leonard left the game at the 7:54 mark in the third do not lie. After Kawhi hit the two free throws that put the Spurs up 78–55, San Antonio only scored 12 more points to close out the quarter. It’s easy to say that the Spurs system kept them in the game and helped them maintain the lead, but in the end, the Spurs did not have a guy to match buckets with the Warriors stars and were greatly outmatched when trying to slow down the Warriors offense.
Look how Kawhi took over the game early in the second quarter; attacking the paint, working his midrange game, and making the right pass to his teammates. Leonard found LaMarcus Aldridge open under the basket and threw a laser beam pass for an easy layup. Later, as the half was coming to a close, he had a simple hand-off to Danny Green off of his dribble penetration that led to a three-pointer. These are not system plays. The Spurs use Kawhi’s ability to create off the dribble to run their offense. This is not the Spurs system, this is relying on a superstar who can slice up the opposing team’s defense at will.
With Tony Parker being out, the offense runs through Kawhi. He creates for everyone else on the team and without him on the court, it will be (and was) extremely challenging for the Spurs to find quality offense. Especially with Aldridge doing his normal disappearing act in the fourth quarter (6 points). The Spurs struggled to make any crunch time baskets, which sparked the 18-0 run the Warriors had after Leonard went out.
At one point, the Spurs trotted out the lineup of Manu Ginobili (a 39 year old whose body looks like he is 100), Dejounte Murray (a rookie point guard with little playoff experience), Patty Mills (who could not hit a three to save his life yesterday), Jonathan Simmons, and Aldridge. With all due respect to those players, who is going to create their own offense? The real answer should be Aldridge. For all the talk about how bad LaMarcus has been, he finally showed up in Game 6 against Houston. On top of that, he had a great first half yesterday. However, when Kawhi went down, it seemed like LaMarcus’ offensive game went to the locker room with him. Unfortunately, like Kawhi, it did not come back for Game 1.
As bad as the Spurs offense was after Kawhi’s injury, their defensive dilemma and lack of urgency were even worse. How was Manu supposed to carry the load offensively and then get back on defense and guard Kevin Durant? That screams mismatch in the Warriors favor. The second part of the Spurs problem on defense was the effort. The first thing that my dad text me after I asked him about the game, was how the Spurs allowed two offensive rebound with two minutes left in the game. Sure, they were long rebounds off of threes that tend to favor the offense. However, securing a defensive rebound was so important in the moment.
Chef was cookin’ today 🔥 pic.twitter.com/Y1PBrzZxwH— GoldenStateWarriors (@warriors) May 15, 2017
(Clip from 1:36)
There was a little under two minutes left after this mishap. With a three-point lead and the opportunity to go up two possessions available, you cannot help but think this was the play that really sealed the Spurs fate.
The impact Kawhi has cannot be emphasized enough. The league and media still treat him as a cog in a machine that is the Spurs system. Leonard is more than that. He wants to win and he has the heart of a champion. His intensity and will to win showed up early and rubbed off on his teammates. All that helped build up the lead in the first half and maintain up to his injury. Two times in the game where this stuck out were Leonard’s two offensive rebounds in the second quarter that led to an easy layup for Aldridge, and his three-point shot that matched Curry’s right before he rolled his ankle the first time. It’s hard to imagine the Warriors getting those two offensive rebounds to tie the game if Leonard was in during crunch time in the fourth.
Blowing a 25 point lead is inexcusable, but it is understandable given these circumstances. The Spurs lost a golden opportunity to steal a game on the road and flip the script on the series. However, they did make a point. Opening night was not a fluke, and they can hang with this Warriors team if Kawhi is healthy.
This year, it is more than just the “Spurs System.” It is that and Kawhi-bot (the basketball machine that Kawhi Leonard has become). It’s like Terminator 3, when the Terminator had a fully grown John Connor to plot with. Now, imagine if John Connor was also a killing machine like Schwarzenegger. The Spurs system and Pop are the original Schwarzenegger they have fought through multiple playoff and championship runs, and Kawhi is John Connor. He was not around for the first runs (Terminator). He was there for the last one, but did not really realize his effect (Terminator 2). Now in Terminator 3, he is ready to contribute and make some stuff happen.
Maybe the Spurs system does play a big role in their effectiveness, but so does Kawhi-bot. Steph Curry should look for a time machine so he could take that shrug and comment about Kawhi back. If there is one thing we have learned from the Terminator movies, John Connor always lives and comes back. He is ready to kick more ass in the next movie. Kawhi-bot will be the same way later in the series, if he can come back.
For all your collegiate and professional apparel needs, check out 365 Gameday.