For two quarters, the Golden State Warriors appeared to be doomed to repeat their unfortunate performance on Opening Night. They trailed the Spurs 62-42 at halftime and were down by as many as 25 points before halftime and as many as 23 points after the break.
Then, Kawhi Leonard re-injured his ankle twice in the third quarter--once on a questionable play by Zaza Pachulia, and went back to the locker room with 7:53 to go in the third quarter. Golden State responded by ripping off an 18-0 run, and managed to regain the lead late in the fourth quarter. While the Spurs managed to recover surprisingly well after the double gut-punch of the Leonard injury and the 18-0 run, the Warriors snuck out of Game 1 with a win that few could have expected before Leonard left the floor.
While the first half performance for Golden State was concerning, their eventual victory is among the promising signs for Game 2 and the rest of the series. Here is a look at some of the key factors that will affect the outcome of these Western Conference Finals.
1. Injuries Abound
Injuries are an unfortunate but important factor in professional sports. Both of those facets were on display last night when Kawhi Leonard left the game in the third quarter after re-aggravating the injured ankle that caused him to miss Game 6 of San Antonio's series against the Houston Rockets.
Leonard originally hurt the ankle after an accidental collision with a member of the Spurs' bench but left for good after stepping on Zaza Pachulia's foot after a jump shot with 7:53 remaining in the third quarter. Unlike in Game 6, however, San Antonio was not prepared to play without their superstar and had to adjust on the fly. They weren't able to do so successfully; the Spurs were +21 in Leonard's 24 minutes but -22 with him on the bench.
Gregg Popovich ruled Leonard out for Game 2 in his press conference on Monday afternoon, where he also skewered Zaza Pachulia for his questionable close-out. While the legality and intentionality of Zaza's move are up for debate, Leonard's impact on the team is certainly not. Kawhi could not have prevented Steph Curry from getting hot, but it is certainly no coincidence that Kevin Durant scored 20 of his 34 points in the second half. It is also not a coincidence that the Spurs scored 78 points in the first 28 minutes of the game and 33 points after that.
However, the Spurs are not the only team that is waiting for an MRI result today. Andre Iguodala sat out the entire second half of Game 1 with a knee injury. Anthony Slater reported that Iguodala is questionable for Game 2.
It would be asinine to equate Iguodala's injury to Kawhi's in terms of importance to their respective teams. That being said, Iguodala was crucial to Golden State's success down the stretch run of the season--both with and without Kevin Durant in the lineup. His injury may not be an issue in this series if Leonard remains on the sidelines beyond Game 2, but the Warriors will need all the wing defense that they can get if they have to face LeBron James in the Finals.
2. What Happened to Klay Thompson?
The Internet had a good laugh last series after Zaza Pachulia went to social media to brag about outscoring Klay Thompson in Game 3 against the Jazz:
Not as many people were laughing after Zaza once again outscored Thompson in Game 1 against the Spurs. Thompson shot a ghastly 18.2% from the floor, committed five fouls, and had as many turnovers (2) as made field goals. He once again finished with six points.
Thompson's poor performance against Utah barely affected the team, as they managed to win by double-digits. His wretched game against San Antonio last night, however, nearly cost the Warriors the game.
This game is not an outlier by any means. Thompson is averaging 15 points per game and shooting just 38.8% from the floor for the 2017 playoffs. Although his defense has been strong throughout the postseason, his inability to get his shooting back on track will become more and more of an issue as the playoffs continue. San Antonio will make it tough for Klay to score no matter what, but the Warriors cannot continue to rely on the rest of their star players to carry the offense without some help from #11.
3. Time to Shine
The Warriors might not be able to continue their playoff winning streak with Klay Thompson failing to meet his usual standards. However, they were able to weather his poor performance for at least one more night on the backs of their MVP's.
Kevin Durant was the second-leading scorer in the game and he coupled that scoring with some defensive ferocity. Durant put up 34 points on 21 shots and was also a vital part of Golden State's rim protection in the second half, finishing with four blocks.
While Durant had a spectacular night, even he had to surrender the game ball for the opening contest of the Western Conference Finals. Stephen Curry poured in 40 points on 26 shots, but even those numbers do not tell the full story. After putting up 14 points in the first half, Curry matched that total in just the first five minutes of the third quarter. He then took advantage of the extra defensive attention that San Antonio sent his way to open up the floor for his teammates:
Notice how Kyle Anderson stares Curry down on this play, even though the Spurs already have another defender on him before he even crosses half court. While he probably would have beaten Anderson to the basket anyway, Kevin Durant is able to leak out for an easy dunk because the Spurs are so focused on keeping Curry under lock and key.
The San Antonio Spurs might have the best defense in the league, but even they couldn't hold either Durant or Curry in check during this game. While Kawhi Leonard's injury will do more to determine the course of this series than anything else, it seems unlikely that the Warriors will lose a game before the Finals if Durant and Curry can play at even 80% of the offensive level that they both reached in the second half of this game.