Overcoming the Kawhi Leonard conundrum
In game two of the Western Conference Finals, the San Antonio Spurs rolled over and had their bellies tickled by a dominant Golden State Warriors team who scored 136 points, 63 of which were from an Andre Iguodala-less bench. The Warriors led by 17 after one quarter, by 28 at half-time, and thoroughly blew out the team that is supposed to represent the toughest test they could ever face in their conference.
In the second half of game one, Golden State outscored the Spurs by 71 points to 39. They overturned what was at one point a 25-point deficit to come back and win, 113-111, and are now a clear 2-0 ahead in the series. Over the last three halves of basketball, then, the Spurs have been outscored 207-139. And this is simply because they have not had Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard was injured after four minutes and eight seconds of the third quarter after stepping on the suspiciously located foot of Warriors big man, Zaza Pachulia. He stayed in the game to shoot the two resulting free throws, hit those, then left with his team up by 23 and never returned to the game. He also did not play in game two. In the 24 minutes of this series that Leonard has played, the Spurs are +21, yet in the 72 minutes that he hasn’t, they are -59. It is clearly self-evident that Kawhi is indescribably invaluable to the Spurs.
How do the Spurs overcome the loss of Kawhi? Simple. They don’t.
Pachulia knew what he was doing when he took a little shuffle step underneath Leonard’s landing spot as he rose for a jumper. He left the foot out there purely so that Leonard might land on it – with the shot already in the air, there was no other reason for Zaza doing so. He knew how advantageous it could be.
How do the Spurs overcome the loss of Kawhi? Simple. They don’t.
Having missed game six of the semi-final series against the Houston Rockets with another rolled ankle, and having trod on his own team mate’s foot a few minutes prior to the Pachulia incident and aggravating it yet again, Leonard’s ankles were a known weak point, and his importance to every aspect of the Spurs was even more known. If there was a way to get rid of his threat, then, it would be explored. And Pachulia has no problem being a hit man.
A discussion as to what repercussions there should be (if any) for Pachulia’s play and others like it (such as what LaMarcus Aldridge did to Kevin Durant in game two) that are designed to cause rolled ankles, and whether the current call of simple shooting foul for an undercut suffices as a punishment, is not for this space. Let us all at least agree, however, that it was deliberate. Not especially athletic and with a solid but far from impressive level of ball skills and shot-making, Pachulia’s value in this league comes from his size, strength, physicality and nous. It was that nous that worked here. Pachulia is there to be annoying and muddy the game up. When his role in Kawhigate is considered alongside his 11 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists and strong interior presence, he could not have done his role better in game one.
Leonard’s ankles were a known weak point, and his importance to every aspect of the Spurs was even more known.
Without Kawhi, game two was a procession. Already missing Tony Parker, who will miss the remainder of the playoffs no matter how much time the Spurs have left within them due to serious injury, the team needed Kawhi to continue his ascent into the Michael Jordan realm. As the sole creator left off the dribble, save for the occasional foray off the dribble from Manu Ginobili and the occasional wilder foray by upstart rookie point guard Dejounte Murray, Kawhi was required to do everything. It only works if he is there. Patty Mills and Danny Green can only be shooting threats if someone is drawing the defense. Jonathan Simmons needs someone to cut around. Someone needs to get to the line, take the crowd-quieting shots, and shoulder the already-huge burden. And someone, of course, has to try and contain Kevin Durant.
A Kawhi-less Spurs lacked for all of that. The offensive discipline was there at times in games one and two as best it could be there in units that had spent precious little time playing together, but the talent was not, and nor was the defensive effort. Mills suddenly looks impotent without players to riff off of, Pau Gasol cannot receive the ball in his favourite spots on the floor, no one can defend anyone in isolation, and even bringing the ball up gets noticeably harder.
Ultimately, two things need to happen for the Spurs to have even an outside chance of turning this series around. The first is, of course, Kawhi’s health. But the second is the play of LaMarcus Aldridge.
Despite playing the majority of his career as essentially a number one option, or at least the closest thing to one that some decent-to-mediocre Portland Trail Blazers teams had in the aftermath of the demise of Brandon Roy’s knee, Aldridge has never been “the man”. He has never seemed to want to be. Despite being able to get away his favourite shots at will, he is far too often all too tentative in doing so.
The mid-range jump shot has been largely mitigated in the modern NBA due to its inefficiency, as is now very well documented. Yet it is different when Aldridge does it. He does it extremely well, relatively consistently, and even when his turnaround post shots are not falling, they do provide pretty good offensive rebounding opportunities for the team (and Pau Gasol in particular). Aldridge on the left block, Pau (or David Lee, or Dewayne Dedmon) on the right baseline and a well-spaced backcourt willing and able to move the ball quickly is not a bad set-up. No one is blocking that Aldridge turnaround or preventing him from taking it in one-on-one defense. Unless a double team is sent from the baseline, the shot is always there.
However, it only works if Aldridge seeks the ball and is decisive with it when he gets it. That is not what has been happening. As has often been the case in the “big” moments of his career, Aldridge has shirked the heightened responsibility of being The Man. It is one thing to concede that a team lacking its star players and primary playmakers will have a significantly detrimental effect on the offensive outputs and efficiencies of the role players who would normally be around them but who now have no-one to be role-playery around. It is quite another when the de facto “second stars” reject the opportunity to step up. Aldridge doesn’t have to succeed, but he does have to try. In game two, he didn’t.
Despite being able to get away his favourite shots at will, he is far too often all too tentative in doing so.
In the post-game conference after the game two drubbing, a particularly irate Gregg Popovich outright called Aldridge “timid”. It was rare to see such a public call-out in this way – perhaps this was the public manifestation of a long-standing behind-the-scenes frustration that has seen rumours of Aldridge’s departure from San Antonio begin from pretty much the day he arrived. Pop nevertheless has a point. Aldridge has spent a decade regularly disappearing, never wanting to be the go-to offensive player that he could be and sometimes needs to be. He has a comfort zone – it is 14 to 20 feet away from the elbow, and almost always the left one – and rarely does he like to leave it. He does not even regularly shoot threes despite having proved by now that he can. Aldridge needs to believe in himself, and the team needs to believe in Aldridge. But how can they?
Until such time as LaMarcus breaks down these self-imposed barriers, it is all very dispiriting. There was no fight in a Leonard-less Spurs, as Popovich let it be known, and the leadership needs to come from the new front line, that being Aldridge. The Warriors know the Kawhi-less Spurs’ offensive limitations, and have the defensive smarts and personnel to double Aldridge if he did start asserting himself offensively and hitting shots. But even if or when that happens, Aldridge must do it anyway.
What’s the worst that can happen? Losing the series? If they and he do not make these changes, the Spurs have lost anyway.