As the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard stepped to the free-throw line late in the fourth quarter of Saturday night’s game against the Warriors, a three-letter chant rained down on him from the San Antonio faithfuls who were packed into the AT&T Center: “M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!”
Leonard drained both shots, and with them, the life out of the Warriors’ comeback chance. It was only the seventh loss this season for the reigning NBA champs, and the forty-fourth straight home victory for the Spurs. The much-hyped matchup—which, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, was the only regular season game in NBA history between two teams both more than 42 games over .500—lived up to its billing.
As preposterous as that chant may seem as the undoubted most valuable player stood right across the court from Leonard, it made sense to anyone who has watched a Spurs game this season. During a normal NBA season, Leonard would run away with the award. But that presupposes that this season is normal. On a night when the future unanimous 2015-16 NBA MVP Steph Curry was unfathomably bad (he actually air balled a three!), Leonard’s reputation as a premiere league superstar only expanded. Five years into his professional career, Leonard’s jumper is perhaps his most devastating asset, because a lockdown perimeter defender who can also handle the ball and play above the rim isn’t supposed to have a stroke that looks like this:
Kawhi is 2/2 from THREEEEE tonight! pic.twitter.com/SNuMn6sPOH
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) March 11, 2016
Still, despite a limp performance from the greatest shooter in NBA history (1-12 from beyond the arc), the presumable one-game preview of the Western Conference Finals was, if not exciting, at least close throughout playtime. Before the game, many wondered if Spurs coach Gregg Popovich would keep it conservative, sitting some stars or at least drastically limiting their time on the court. Tim Duncan played just eight minutes, a function of both his age and the fact that teams are forced to play small against Golden State.
The other question was whether or not Popovich would show his hand defensively. To stop Steph Curry, you have to pick him up right when he crosses half-court and physically harass him until he is forced to pass out of the situation. On Saturday night, Popovich threw the kitchen sink and Boris Diaw’s locker-side espresso machine at the Warriors. The Spurs repeatedly confused and flustered Curry, dispatching Aldridge on him at times, which clogged up his passing lanes. Spurs defenders were especially handsy with the Warriors point guard, taking a page out of Clipper Chris Paul’s book: foul the opposing point guard on every play until they start calling it. The refs on Saturday night mostly rolled the ball out and let the two teams play, much to the delight of basketball fans, but definitely to the chagrin of Warriors coach Steve Kerr. Curry’s normally transcendent handle looked off at times, and his ability to hit off-balance threes disappeared, the alien sharpshooter for once resembling a humanoid basketball player.
So the Spurs earned another win, some confidence against the best team in the NBA this season (or maybe ever), and kept the home winning streak intact. But at the same time, this tactic gave the Warriors a glimpse at what the Spurs will do in the playoffs, meaning Kerr will have ample time to plan for this rematch. Will it be enough? Hopefully, if this game was any indication, we’ll at least be able to find out.
Now, disclaimer here: Curry flat-out missed six of his eight uncontested shots on Saturday night, something the Spurs can’t count on happening much in the playoffs. At one point, when one of his threes was blocked, I thought I might be watching a game in an alternate universe; Curry has attempted 738 threes this season, and Danny Green’s rejection in the second quarter was the first all year to never completely leave his hand. Furthermore, Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, and Festus Ezeli sat the game out, leading to a lopsided 53-37 rebounding advantage for the Spurs. The Warriors grabbed just seven offensive rebounds all night. At full-strength, in a few months, we’ll likely see four to seven more of these match-ups. But you can bet that all of those will likely resemble less of a low-scoring wrestling match than this one was.