The sudden and total collapse of the Spurs after Leonard went down was jarring, and instructive.
Foto de Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
While everyone who follows basketball knows that Kawhi Leonard is one of the best players in the NBA, he often finds himself cast as The Other Guy in conversations about the Most Valuable Player or Best Actual Player in the world. After Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals between his Spurs and the Golden State Warriors, however, that could change.
Sunday afternoon's game made as strong a case for the greatness of Kawhi as any one game has ever made for the greatness of an individual player. We all know what happened by now: the Spurs were up by as much as 25 points, cruising to what was going to be a shocking victory when, midway through the third quarter, Leonard suffered an injury at the hands of Zaza Pachulia that forced him to miss the rest of the game.
Up until that point, Leonard was having a monster afternoon, scoring 26 points on 13 shots, while adding eight rebounds and three assists. Perhaps most importantly, he was a +21 for the game. Essentially, Leonard was the driving force behind the massive Spurs lead. When he left the court, San Antonio completely fell apart, ultimately losing the game.
That's a pretty stunning stat in its own right, but what really made this collapse stand out was how it happened. The second Leonard went to the locker room, the Spurs collapsed. All the confidence they played with to that point immediately vanished. They turned the ball over, they forced bad shots, they desperately tried to draw fouls that they had no chance of getting the refs to bite on. Essentially, they did all the things the Spurs never do. The sense of panic was palpable.
The Spurs have several quality players other than Leonard, but everything coalesces around him. He's the rare superstar who is also a glue guy. Without him, the Spurs simply couldn't function. Naturally, the Warriors smelled blood and went in for the kill, scoring 18 unanswered points, and obliterated the Spurs' cushion. It was jarring to watch.
Granted, it's not that shocking that a team collapsed after losing its best player, but what we need to keep in mind is that it was the freaking Spurs! This is an extremely well-coached team of veteran players who have all suffered through various forms of adversity in their careers. If there was one team who could survive something like this, you'd think it would be them, especially after they had managed to finish off the Houston Rockets without Leonard just a few days earlier. Instead, the entire team shrank from the moment, and the beautiful basketball we've come to expect from San Antonio degenerated into a series of uninspiring LaMarcus Aldridge mid-range jumpers.
When a team as meticulously assembled as the Spurs disintegrates after losing a single player, it's quite clear that that player matters as much as anyone else in the league. Nothing proved Leonard's value quite like watching a team full of established veterans, with an all-time great coach, flail aimlessly without him.
Let's figure that there are two ways to measure a player's worth: what he does on the court, and how his team holds up when he leaves the court. From that perspective, Game 1 was a monument to exactly how much Kawhi Leonard means to the Spurs. They were +21 with him, and -23 without him. Remember when everyone was talking about the Oklahoma City Thunder imploding without Russell Westbrook? This was worse.
Gregg Popovich announced that Leonard is a no-go for Game 2, and who knows if he'll play at all the rest of the series. After what happened yesterday, it's reasonable to think that if he comes back by Game 3, we could still have a series on our hands. If he can't, or if he returns at less than full strength, we can expect this to end rather quickly. The Spurs might have been able to beat an already-dead Rockets team without Leonard, but he is still primarily responsible for their status as a contender, and yesterday's events proved it beyond the shadow a doubt.
Does this mean he's a more logical MVP than James Harden or Westbrook, or that he's a better all-around player than LeBron James? That's in the eye of the beholder, but after what I witnessed on Sunday, I don't think there's another player in this league I'd rather build a team around.