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No Kawhi comeback? Spurs still like chances against Warriors

SAN FRANCISCO — A jovial Gregg Popovich turned serious in the Presidio room on the fifth floor of the Four Seasons Hotel on Sunday when the subject turned to Kawhi Leonard.

With the undermanned San Antonio Spurs focusing their attention on Monday’s Game 2 matchup against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, Popovich was asked whether there was value to the injured Leonard at least spending time with the team, despite his inability to actually contribute on the court.

“He’s rehabbing right now in New York, trying to get healthy,” Popovich said.

From there on, silence, news conference over.

Patty Mills called Leonard’s absence “a tricky deal,” but pointed out that the team wants “him to keep doing what he’s doing to stay healthy. I don’t know if he’ll be able to do that if he’s in this environment. In saying that, the support is always going to be there from him no matter where he is around the country. We support him getting healthy.”

A league source said the club doesn’t expect Leonard back at any point during the playoffs, but the reality of Leonard’s absence registered long before San Antonio’s 113-92 loss on Saturday to the Warriors in Game 1. That’s why the Spurs still entered the postseason confident in their chances of pulling off an upset after a roller-coaster season, provided they could consistently play the type of basketball they achieved while going 42-31 without Leonard in the lineup.

But San Antonio proved in Game 1 that such a feat is more than daunting against one of the league’s most dangerous squads.

“There’s a lot of factors in winning and losing,” Popovich said. “So we’ve got to do a lot of things better. It’s a game of mistakes. Even when you win, you go back to the film and you see things that you didn’t do well. How many points did we score last night? [Warriors coach] Steve [Kerr is] gonna look at the film and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do this better and we’ve got to do that better.’ We’ll probably look at the film a little longer.

“I thought their defense was outstanding. That was the story of the game. They made it really tough for us offensively. We just couldn’t score, and it’s a bad combination to play defense as lackadaisical as we did. I don’t think we were very physical, not very aggressive. They pretty much scored at will, and we weren’t shooting well on the other end. So that’s a bad combination.”

The difference a healthy Leonard could make on the court is undeniable.

Last season, when Leonard matched up as a defender against Kevin Durant (17 times in Game 1 of the 2017 conference finals, second most among Spurs defenders), the Warriors averaged 82.4 points per 100 possessions. Conversely, with Danny Green matched up with Durant 20 times in Game 1 last season, the Warriors averaged 180.0 points per 100 possessions.

According to Second Spectrum, Green was Durant’s most common defender in Game 1 on Saturday, matching up with him 17 times in the half court. Durant scored three points and had three assists and one turnover against Green. But overall, eight different Spurs defenders matched up with Durant in the half court. Even the 6-foot Mills found himself switched onto Durant.

“It was kind of to simplify things,” Mills said. “Obviously it’s not the ideal matchup. Again, I think what trumps any of that mismatch stuff is just being aggressive and getting them off their spots so they can’t catch it in the sweet spot and pull into a 3 or have a straight-line drive to the basket. Just try to be a pest. It works.”

It didn’t in Game 1, which is why Durant and Klay Thompson ended up combining for 51 points as the Warriors shot 54.3 percent.

And the Warriors posed bigger problems on the other end.

“They’re long. [KD], Klay, Draymond [Green], [JaVale] McGee. And not only shots,” Mills said. “It’s passes as well, trying to get a nice crisp, clean pass into a shot pocket, it definitely interferes with that rhythm kind of thing. Offensively, it’s something that’s a focus for us the next game, finding ways to score. We definitely struggled. We brought it to nine points in the third quarter, but we couldn’t score.”

Without Leonard there to help LaMarcus Aldridge generate offense, the Spurs know the rest of the club needs to step up to pick up the slack. But the question is whether San Antonio’s supporting cast is capable.

With Leonard as the team’s go-to option last season, the Spurs used the forward in an isolation set 38 times during the final five seconds of the shot clock, which registered as San Antonio’s most-used plays in those situations. Leonard averaged 1.09 points per direct play last season, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information. But this season, Green receives that responsibility, with the numbers bearing out much differently.

Using Green in isolation became San Antonio’s most-used play in the final five seconds of the shot clock this season (13 times), with the Spurs averaging 0.46 points off the play.

Veteran Pau Gasol, meanwhile, pointed out that the Warriors played with “a chip on their shoulder” in Game 1 after losing 10 of 17 headed into the playoffs, with skeptics saying Golden State isn’t as dangerous a team without Stephen Curry in the lineup.

With the Spurs expecting to be without Leonard for the rest of the postseason, could San Antonio start playing with a similar edge?

“We haven’t had that type of talk; haven’t won two championships in the last three years,” Gasol said. “We haven’t been to three straight Finals. There’s not that type of chip on our shoulders.

“We do have the absence of arguably our best player. And that’s been there the whole year. That’s nothing new. But we have the guys that we have, and we feel like we have a good chance if we play the right way, we play together, we play harder and smarter than our opponent. We just didn’t quite do that [in Game 1] enough.”

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