So let’s put those “Kawhi Leonard cannot be an MVP candidate because the San Antonio Spurs are too good without him; just look at how they won Game 6 against the Houston Rockets” takes to bed, shall we?
On Sunday, in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, Leonard re-aggravated his left ankle injury that he suffered in Round 2. Though the Spurs led by double digits when he exited the game inside eight minutes to play, they ended up losing to the Golden State Warriors 113-111. It was a sobering time. The Warriors are the heavy favorites in this series, and the Spurs may have just squandered their best, perhaps only, chance to turn the outcome on its head.
On the bright side, Leonard didn’t sound too down after the loss, per ESPN.com’s Michael C. Wright:
The only strangeness witnessed was the fact that the training staff sat Leonard at a table and taped up the injured ankle after the game, before the forward pulled on a Spurs sweat suit and strolled out to the team bus.
“I feel good,” Leonard said. “I’ll get back healthy. I have faith in my teammates, and we’re going to see what happens [in] Game 2.”
Or not really.
The hell if we know.
As a source went on to tell Wright:
That’s likely going to involve Leonard playing the role of spectator instead of savior on Tuesday in what was already expected to be a lopsided series. It is now tilted heavily in favor of the host Warriors.
A league source said that Leonard would undergo an MRI on Monday morning. When the forward originally suffered the injury in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets, a source explained San Antonio’s philosophy for dealing with injuries, which dates all the way back to the early Tim Duncan years and provides something of a clue for how the Spurs might proceed with Leonard throughout this series. . . .
Leonard’s injury isn’t as significant as Duncan’s. But the source said that situation started a philosophy by Popovich of the team always striving to “do what’s best for the player” when dealing with injuries, even if it means faltering in the playoffs. In this case, it’s probably best for Leonard to sit, considering that after Game 2 on Tuesday, these teams won’t clash again until Saturday in San Antonio. That would give Leonard nearly a week to rest the sore ankle.
If Leonard cannot play in Game 2, the Spurs must resign themselves to heading back to San Antonio down 2-0. You can never count out a Gregg Popovich-led squad. But these are the Warriors. They were mounting a comeback prior to Leonard’s injury. They’ll feast on a Spurs squad that, when you factor in Tony Parker’s absence, won’t have two of its best playmakers.
Where they have been able to survive without Parker on the floor, the Spurs turn to mush offensively whenever Leonard sits. They’re totaling a paltry 102.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s not on the court, according to NBA.com. The next lowest offensive rating they post without a player is 110.7 (David Lee). So yes, this is a disaster scenario.
Still, as Wright points out, Leonard will get nearly a week to recover from the injury if he sits out Game 2. If it’s just a sprain, he should be back.
Then again, these are the Spurs. They prioritize the big picture over the immediate one. And after seeing Leonard injure the same ankle twice—three times if you count when he turned it just before Zaza Pachulia’s shady close-out—they may decide it’s better to play themselves out of the Western Conference without him than gamble on his future.