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The Spurs’ Survival Guide Without Kawhi

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Facing a 2-0 WCF deficit, can the Spurs bounce back without Kawhi Leonard?

The San Antonio Spurs’ chances to upset the number one seeded Golden State Warriors suffered a devastating blow at the end of Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals when Kawhi Leonard was sidelined due to a nagging ankle injury. Following the controversial closeout by Zaza Pachulia that sent Leonard to the bench, the Warriors stormed back from a 25-point deficit to take Game 1, and romped to a 136-100 wire-to-wire victory in Game 2. As Golden State continues their perfect 10-0 start to the playoffs, can the Spurs even compete without their star forward?  

While Kawhi is certainly the Spurs’ most indispensable player, it might surprise some fans to learn that San Antonio is actually 8-1 (prior to this WCF series) without Leonard this season. Most notably, the Spurs defeated the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the semis in a 114-75 blowout. Despite the similarities in their free-firing, run-and-gun styles, the Warriors are not the Rockets (to state the obvious). In Game 6, Houston was held to an awful 28.6% shooting from the floor.


As we see here, the Spurs were successful because of a strong, balanced team attack that saw six players in double digits, including 34 from a vintage-looking LaMarcus Aldridge. It is hard to discern if San Antonio (especially Jonathon Simmons) was very successful at shutting down MVP candidate James Harden, or if he just wilted on the playoff stage. They also held the 3-firing Rockets down to 32.5% shooting from the arc, which is significantly lower than their usual mark. One particular breakout performance came from the Texas-born rookie Jonathon Simmons.  

Given the Herculean task of starting in the place of the injured Leonard, Simmons has impressed in his increased minutes. In Houston, Simmons scored 18 points on 8-12 shooting and put up four assists in 31 minutes, well up from his regular season average of 17.8 minutes in his rookie campaign. In Game 2 against Golden State, he shot 8-17 and led the squad with 22 points, justifying his elevation in Gregg Popovich’s pecking order.  

Unfortunately for San Antonio, it does not appear that they will have much answer for the length and athleticism of Warriors like Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. Without their most versatile and effective defender in Leonard, the Spurs would have to switch smaller defenders, like the 6’6” Simmons, onto GSW’s “bigs.” Their only other option would be to play bigger, less mobile players like Aldridge or Gasol on Golden State’s forwards, which wouldn’t end well. Leonard’s absence on the offensive end is tough, but his loss on the defensive end is devastating.  

Pau Gasol is a player that needs to step up for the Spurs if they have any hope of weathering the Golden State storm sans-Kawhi. After a solid 2016-17 season for the 15-year vet in which he nearly averaged a double-double in points and rebounds, he has disappointed in the playoffs thus far. His offensive output has almost been halved (12.4 PPG in the regular season, 6.9 now), his rebounds are down and his personal fouls are up. He will need to match Zaza Pachulia’s (if his Game 2 injury isn’t serious) impact if the Spurs hope to get back into this series.  

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Photo: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

In two games, the Warriors have exploited the vaunted San Antonio defense to dash out to a 2-0 series lead. During the regular season, the Spurs were in the upper echelons of the NBA defensively, holding opponents to 44.3% from the field and 34.4% from deep. Against GSW in Game 2, the Warriors shot an outstanding 56.2% from the field and 48.6% from 3-point range. Without Leonard as their defensive anchor, the Spurs seem to be a step slow in their defensive rotations, especially on the perimeter.   

A key to defeating the Golden State Warriors, if there is such a thing, is limiting turnovers. GSW is one of the most devastating offensive teams in transition, so the Spurs’ staunch defense is less effective if they cannot get back to set it up. After averaging 12.9 giveaways in 2016-17, the Spurs turned the ball over 17 and 18 times respectively in the last two games. A fundamentally sound team like San Antonio needs to play flawless basketball without Kawhi, and their sloppiness thus far does not bode well for their chances moving forward. 

Without key personnel like Kawhi and the simultaneously sidelined Tony Parker, the Spurs might not have much of a chance to stop the juggernaut Warriors, who look poised to cruise to their third Finals in as many years. San Antonio was built to compete on the strength of their defense, which seems overmatched without Leonard’s contributions. Luckily, Gregg Popovich is known for his creativity and knack for making adjustments, and that is exactly what the Spurs will need if they hope to tread water in Kawhi Leonard’s absence. 

Edited by Joe Sparacio.

Despite going undrafted in 2012, what honor did Jonathon Simmons receive in 2015 for the D-League Austin Toros?
Created 5/17/17
  1. All-Defensive Third Team
  2. All-Defensive Second Team
  3. D-League All-Star
  4. D-League All-Star MVP

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