It's time for one of the NBA’s greatest annual traditions: Realizing the Spurs are still very much in the thick of it. What a game that was in Cleveland on Saturday, with the Spurs topping the Cavaliers 118-115 in an overtime thriller. For all the ink that’s been spilled so far this season on a potential threematch between the Cavs and Warriors in the Finals, San Antonio and Cleveland’s first go-around of the season was a helpful reminder that seeing LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard go head-to-head would be just as entertaining in the championship round.
While the bitterness on the court between the Cavs and Warriors is its own kind of fun, the technical proficiency between James and Leonard is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Leonard was outstanding Saturday, scoring a career-high 41 points—his sixth straight game over 30. He pushed the ball in transition, finding open looks early in the shot clock. And he overcame some (very mild) struggles from three by relentlessly attacking the rim. That Leonard, the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, can now dominate games on both sides of the floor is nothing short of frightening for opposing coaches.
James continued to show how his game has evolved in Year 14 of his career. He was in facilitator mode in the first half, dishing out easy assists early before taking on a larger scoring burden late, shooting uber-efficiently in the process. The Spurs are arguably the team that’s forced LeBron to adjust his game the most in his career. But Saturday, Popovich was forced to come up with a new game plan to slow down the spinning-passes-in-the-exact-way-each-teammate-likes-it version of James.
(James also reminded everyone why he is the best player in the world with an incredible sequence late in the fourth. With Cleveland down three, James hit a deep three-pointer over Leonard’s outstretched arms to tie the game, then absolutely suffocated Kawhi defensively on the Spurs’ next possession to help send the game into overtime.)
The Spurs’ win was more impressive considering they played without Tony Parker and PauGasol. David Lee filled in admirably in the frontcourt, while rookie point guard Dejounte Murray looked like the latest Spur to come out of nowhere and infuriate fans of other Western Conference teams for years to come. Lee has made himself useful in San Antonio, and his liveliness in the frontcourt is important when considering the depth of the Cavs’ bigs. And Murray gives San Antonio another long body who can defend and find his own offense in a pinch.
There was greatness all over this game. Irving was spectacular in his own right, scoring 29 points in addition to nine assists. Irving abused the Spurs in the pick-and-roll, particularly having his way with Manu Ginobili in the fourth quarter and overtime. If the Spurs were forced to throw their older players on Irving throughout a series, he could pose a major problem, especially with LeBron content to let others score.
The Spurs have been slept on to a degree this season, thanks largely to the feeling of inevitability of Warriors-Cavs III. But they entered Saturday with the second-best net rating in the league, ranked top-four in both offense and defense. And after their opening night blowout of the Dubs, and subsequent road wins over the Rockets and Cavs, it’s maaaaaaybe time to take San Antonio slightly more seriously as a title contender.
At the very least, we can dream of what a fun Finals matchup Spurs-Cavs would be. Leonard vs. James III? Kyrie vs. Parker? LeBron and Pop matching wits? Saturday night was just a taste of how compelling such a series would be.