With just over two minutes left in the third quarter, Golden State’s Kevin Looney fouled LaMarcus Aldridge hard on a layup attempt. Aldridge fell to the floor and lay there for a few seconds. Two of his teammates rushed to help him up, but he refused their help. He wanted to stay down for a little bit longer.
He lay there with his eyes closed, taking deep breaths, with his knees hanging close to his chest. It looked like he was hurt at first, but it was soon apparent that he was just trying to get some rest. He was exhausted.
Led by Aldridge, the Spurs held a lead in Game 2 against the Warriors until the four-minute mark of the third quarter. The Warriors started to pull away after that and eventually won by double digits. When Aldridge went down, the Warriors were up by seven points. He eventually got up to make his free throws, and the two points meant he had been responsible for 11 straight Spurs points.
After a poor Game 1, Aldridge was terrific. He finished with 34 points, 12 rebounds and three assists in 37 minutes. He was the Spurs’ main attacking threat, so for most of the game, he dealt with double and triple teams. He battled, took many hits, and persevered. For much of the game, it looked as if he was going toe-to-toe with Kevin Durant.
It was an effort that Gregg Popovich praised effusively after the game.
“LaMarcus has been a monster all year long. He’s led our team at both ends of the floor. He doesn’t complain about a darn thing. He just plays through everything. I can’t imagine being more proud of a player as far as playing through adversity and being there for his teammates night after night after night. He’s been fantastic.”
The cynical reaction is to read this as an attack on the absent Kawhi Leonard, who will reportedly miss the rest of the playoffs with that mysterious quad injury. When asked after Game 1 if Leonard would rejoin the team at any point, Popovich responded: “You’ll have to ask Kawhi and his group that question.”
Setting Popovich’s intentions aside, the reason we’re even reading something into his response is simple: Leonard remains the Spurs’ best player. Not having him on the court means they don’t have much of a chance in this series. Aldridge’s success is admirable, but Leonard’s absence is particularly damning in a close game like this one.
Good defense, ball movement, and Aldridge’s brilliance kept the Spurs ahead for most of the contest and within striking range until the last few minutes. But without Leonard, that lead was never going to hold. Even when San Antonio was ahead, it lacked the offensive power to put any real distance between them and the Warriors. When playing the Warriors, there needs to be a Grand Canyon-sized distance, because they can erase single-digit leads as if they were nothing even without Stephen Curry.
As the game wore on, Aldridge grew more tired from battling two or three people in the post every time he got the ball. In moments like that, it’d have been nice to have Leonard. Without him, the offense had to be distributed among the rest of his limited colleagues. Manu Ginobili showed flashes of his genius, but he’s 40 years old; flashes are all that should and can be expected. Patty Mills missed a ton of shots early, negating his impact later in the game. Paul Gasol did as much as he could, but he’s 37. Rudy Gay started off well, but the Warriors’ suffocating defense eventually confined him.
The NBA is still a league dominated by its stars taking control in close games. Aldridge did his part well, but the Spurs need another star who could create his own shot, take opponents on one-on-one, and come up with something special toward the end of the game. Someone else that could demand consistent double teams, and could allow Aldridge to rest instead of being forced to lie down to catch his breath. Someone who could destabilize the defense in a way that Aldridge, having to work from the post most of the time, couldn’t.
Someone like Kawhi Leonard.
By contract, while Golden State doesn’t have Stephen Curry, they still have Durant and Klay Thompson. Durant matched Aldridge’s performance to keep the contest close, and then Thompson went on a trademark scoring spree late to seal the game. In the fourth quarter alone, Thompson had 16 points. Every time the Spurs tried to mount a comeback, Thompson put the game out of their reach.
With Thompson and Durant scoring and demanding attention, even a great defense is forced to scramble and compromise themselves. That means Draymond Green can take and make his threes. That means Andre Iguodala can sit in acres of space to take threes himself because the defense is so focused on more immediate threats. The situation becomes overwhelming. All of a sudden, what was a close game becomes a 16-point deficit and the starters from both sides have to be taken out because the game is over with two minutes still left.
Without Leonard, there’s not much the Spurs can do against a team like Golden State, even with Aldridge thriving and Curry injured. The Warriors lack the center of their offense, but they still have so much more on the edges than the Spurs do. The Warriors have stars who can take over when the game demands it. The Spurs have one star who has to exhaust himself from the beginning just to make sure his team keeps up with their opponents.
Game 2 underscored Popovich’s sad reality in a Kawhi-less world. He can scheme the perfect game plan and get an MVP-caliber game from his healthy star, and all it takes is a scoring burst from Golden State’s third-best offensive player to render that effort irrelevant.