Injury is an inexorable evil of the playoffs — it’s the fine print in the contract of the 82-game season. It’s a reminder that sports operates in opposition to nature: Watching humans extend the bounds of what is possible is why we watch, and there is a tacit understanding that nature will occasionally push back at inopportune moments. Before Game 3 of Spurs-Warriors on Saturday, news came down almost concurrently that Kawhi Leonard would sit out of the game and that Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas, who had sustained a hip injury on Friday in one of the most lopsided losses in NBA postseason history to the Cavaliers, was out for the rest of the series. The news meant that the sinking feeling that fed into our season-long acknowledgment of a Cavs-Warriors III inevitability has turned into concrete reality. It’s not exactly wish fulfillment, it’s more like staring up at the burning sky and recognizing what’s soon to follow.
Thus, what’s happened so far in the conference-final round has almost felt like a betrayal — it’s felt like nature conspiring with logic to eliminate what makes basketball worth watching: the veil of competitiveness. The final scores from Game 2 of the conference finals were decided by an average margin of 40 points. The outcome of either series probably doesn’t change with a healthy Leonard or Thomas, but it at least keeps up appearances. Without that veil, watching the playoffs is no more compelling than watching — as Pau Gasol characterized the Spurs prior to Game 3 — "a wounded animal" struggling to stand, let alone run.
During the 120–108 Warriors Game 3 win on Saturday, the ESPN broadcast repeatedly mentioned and flashed the score in Game 1 when Kawhi Leonard went down with the ankle injury that sidelined him for the past two games: 78–55 in the third quarter; Leonard, should you need a reminder, had 26 points and eight rebounds in 24 minutes. He was a plus-21 in a game the Spurs would manage to lose by two. As you watch the Spurs operate without Leonard, it becomes exceedingly clear how Kawhi — like fellow MVP candidates Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and LeBron James — served as his team’s one-man system. Not only had the Spurs offense adapted to incorporate more of Kawhi’s unnaturally efficient isolation play, their defense (which was the league’s best this season) is predicated on the split seconds of hesitation that an opponent has to take on every play when Leonard is on the floor, which affords many of his aging and/or inexperienced teammates a greater margin for error. Saturday, a lack of precision on defense left the Spurs prone all night long. The result? Another triple-digit finish from the Warriors, who have scored at least 100 in every game of the postseason.
When you juxtapose these hobbled Spurs with the Warriors, the lack of ball movement (especially compared to past iterations in San Antonio) is striking. Part of it is personnel and part of it is simply acknowledging their opponent’s strengths: The Spurs having to adjust on the fly means trotting out lineup combinations that have zero rapport — Kyle Anderson, Davis Bertans, and Joel Anthony all logged minutes in the first quarter! — and the last thing you want to do against a team as long and athletic as the Warriors is force passes. Thus, a lot of Spurs possessions follow Occam’s razor, keeping the ball in one person’s hand and hoping they can create something themselves. On Saturday, that meant letting Manu Ginobili empty his bag of tricks. This nutmeg on David West is an instant classic:
The second-oldest player in the league played a nearly flawless offensive game, scoring 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting in less than 18 minutes, which should tell you everything you need to know about the state of the Spurs in this series. Everything is suboptimal; the best performance from a Spur all night was from their mascot, Coyote, who rocked a romper with gusto:
Things just haven’t looked like Spurs basketball, but it’s hard to know what that even means anymore without Leonard on the court.
The Warriors now have 11 straight wins to open the playoffs, tied for the most in one postseason in NBA history; the Cavaliers will be right there with them soon enough as they try to extend their postseason winning streak, which has already tied the record (13) and dates back to last season’s 3–1 finals comeback. Barring a miracle, these two teams will be the first two teams to have ever swept their way to a finals meeting. The hope is for a competitive series, that there are stress points in Golden State’s algorithmic system, that there will still be something capable of catching us off guard, of taking our breaths away. That we aren’t already caught in a simulation stemming from a basketball Singularity. The finals start on June 1. There are still 11 days to go in May. The beginning of the end of this season can’t come soon enough.