Can Spurs Beat Warriors Without Kawhi Leonard? Popovich Needs His All-Star Fit, Soon

Remember what happened when Zaza Pachulia landed on Kawhi Leonard’s precious left ankle on Sunday, May 14, 2017 at Oracle Arena in Oakland?

Leonard, the two-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, limped off with eight minutes remaining in the third quarter of the Western Conference Finals Game One against the Golden State Warriors, with the San Antonio Spurs leading by 25 points.

What happened next was accurately, if tangentially, captured by Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich in his post-game words. Bear in mind that Popovich—an articulate, reasonable, not to mention woke soul—had a whole night to sleep off his anger. "Who gives a damn about what [Pachulia's] intent was?” Popovich said in quotes reported by Sports On Earth. “You ever hear of manslaughter? You still go to jail, I think, when you're texting and you end up killing somebody, but you might not have intended to do that…A two-step, lead-with-your-foot closeout is not appropriate. It's dangerous, it's unsportsmanlike. It's just not what anybody does to anybody else. And this particular individual has a history with that kind of action."

Popovich was angry with Pachulia, of course, but also with what Leonard’s absence would mean for the Spurs. Without Leonard on the court, Popovich watched that lead evaporate. Without Leonard for the series, the Spurs were swept 4-0, bounced from the Western Conference’s exclusive club without ceremony.

And now the Spurs are without Leonard again, for the whole preseason, The Washington Post reported over the weekend. The 26-year-old has what is described as a “lingering” quadriceps injury. “We’re not going to put a timetable on it,” Popovich said on Saturday. “But he’s working at it, and we’ll get him back as soon as we can.”

With Leonard’s extraterrestrial two-way game, the Spurs have a chance of upsetting the Warriors in the playoffs. History, frustratingly, won’t tell us what might have happened in Game 1 had Leonard not gone down but logic suggests the series would not have turned into a procession for the Warriors.

Without Leonard, and as well-coached as they are, the ageing Spurs look a step or several behind the Western Conference’s monoliths. The Rockets, to name but one, re-tooled in the summer after the Spurs edged by them in the semifinals in May—a series in which Leonard took over. Popovich needs his All-Star back, as soon as possible.

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