- Good fortune is not the only reason Golden State appears destined for another Finals run. The Warriors simply possess overwhelming talent.
In 24 minutes with Kawhi Leonard on the floor Sunday, the Spurs were 21 points better than the Warriors. In 24 minutes with Leonard off the floor, the Warriors were 23 points better than the Spurs. That’s the statistic most worth noting after Golden State’s 113–111 Western Conference Finals Game 1 win over San Antonio, one that will forever be shrouded by Leonard’s sprained left ankle—an injury occurring on what was a controversial play by Zaza Pachulia.
San Antonio jumped out to a huge lead, and built a 20-point cushion by halftime. The Spurs did so by turning over the Warriors frequently, limiting three-point field goal attempts and finding efficient scores on offense. It’s hard to overstate Leonard’s impact on each of these facets of the Spurs’ success. His on-ball pressure and ability to fight over screens can muck up even Golden State’s high-powered attack, as we saw for stretches in Game 1. (The Spurs’ bigs do also deserve credit for contesting shots in the paint without fouling.) On offense, Leonard has been called upon to initiate since the playoff-ending injury to Tony Parker, and his ability to knife into the paint created opportunities for others, while his one-on-one game bailed out the Spurs’ broken possessions time and time again.
The Warriors were always going to tighten the gap after finding themselves in a hole. Golden State looked much more comfortable in the third quarter, largely because Mike Brown put the ball in Stephen Curry’s hands and allowed him to work off screens at the top of the key. The result was three-pointer after three-pointer, as Curry found his groove and began to embark one of his patented self-runs. The Spurs were able to answer nearly every jab until Leonard hurt his ankle, and once San Antonio’s MVP was off the court, the Warriors went on an 18–0 run that forced a close finish.
The Warriors just barely eked out the win in the final two minutes, and the victory will mask in what was many ways a baffling performance. A list of questions for the Warriors, in no particular order of importance: Why has Klay Thompson disappeared? Why won’t Mike Brown use the Death Lineup? Why does Brown ever sit Curry and Kevin Durant at the same time? How serious is Andre Iguodala’s “left knee soreness?” Why does it take a 20-point deficit for Curry to see some high screens?
In the long run, how much would those questions have impacted the series? Maybe they wouldn’t have at all, but it’s hard to have that conversation after Leonard’s injury. Ultimately, the same reason why the Warriors were able to come back in Game 1 will be why they are heavy favorites as the postseason continues—their talent is just too overwhelming.
Curry’s shooting ability is the single most devastating skill in the NBA, and defenses are already twisted into pretzels trying to prevent him any airspace. Durant can isolate on any defender in the world and still probably find an easy shot. Even when Thompson is struggling you have to respect his ability to shoot from three. And Draymond Green can guard any player, regardless of position, while knocking down open shots and making plays on offense. It’s a collection of skills that demands perfection from the opponent.
The Spurs have no chance of winning this series without Kawhi, and right now it’s hard to imagine him coming back before Game 3, when he can return after having five-plus days to rest his ankle. A little more from LaMarcus Aldridge could have swung Game 1—he scored 28 points, but bungled some opportunities down the stretch. Aldridge is a max player, still it’s hard to put the Spurs’ loss on any one player, with the team essentially playing with one hand behind its back after losing Leonard.
In some ways, it’s hard to have a serious basketball conversation about the Warriors right now. There were some seemingly legitimate issues for Golden State during Game 1, but the Dubs—thanks to what will be an unknown combination of sheer talent and Leonard’s injury—won anyway. The Warriors were lucky to steal Game 1, but whether or not Leonard comes back at 100%, Golden State’s talent should consider to render any of its issues inconsequential.