OAKLAND, California – The Golden State Warriors survived Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, roaring back from a 25-point deficit for a 113-111 victory over the San Antonio Spurs at Oracle Arena on Sunday.
It was an admirable show, to be sure, but one made possible by yet another injury to Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. The Warriors looked beat early in the third quarter, when Leonard buried two free throws to push the Spurs’ lead to 78-55 and the locals in this ear-splitting venue were as quiet as you’ll ever hear. But there was a catch, and a monumental one at that.
Leonard had tweaked his ailing left ankle on the left corner jumpshot attempt that earned him the trip to the line, landing on the right foot of Warriors center Zaza Pachulia as he attempted to close and heading to the locker room for good shortly thereafter. It was the second time in a matter of minutes that Leonard appeared to re-injure the same ankle that kept him out of the late stages of Game 5 and all of Game 6 against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals.
Just three minutes and nine seconds later, courtesy of an 18-0 run that cut San Antonio’s lead to five, the Warriors were back in business.
Golden State didn’t earn its first lead until midway through the fourth quarter, when Kevin Durant’s pullup jumper fell through and the Warriors (98-95) were on their way. Durant was key in the fourth quarter, scoring 12 of his 34 points. Warriors point guard Stephen Curry had just four points after the first quarter, but finished with a game-high 40 points. Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge had a team-high 28 points, but just six came in the final period in which San Antonio shot 33.3% (seven of 21).
The Warriors received a welcome surprise on the coaching front, as the ailing Steve Kerr was part of team meetings in the locker room before, during, and after the game while watching from the locker room. Kerr, who last coached in Game 2 of the first round against Portland on April 19 because of complications suffered from back surgery two summers ago, did not make the trip to Utah for the Warriors’ last two playoffs games in the second round.
And this wasn’t a token appearance, either, as he addressed his players at halftime before yielding to acting head coach Mike Brown.
”Get your poise back,” Kerr told them, as seen on locker room cameras that were used for the ESPN telecast. “Wings, run like crazy, just settle a little (and) get three stops in a row. Let’s get three stops in a row, and then the push will come from that. The pace will come from that. Settle in. We’ll be alright.”
After a postseason that had been roundly accused of being boring, the Spurs delivered a compelling start by jumping out to a 30-16 lead after the first quarter and leading 62-42 at halftime. Aldridge led the way on the offensive end, attacking everyone from Durant to Draymond Green to Andre Iguodala while scoring 18 first-half points.
One-legged stepback jumpers. Hard drives through the hole. Aldridge, whose 34-point outing in the closeout game against Houston helped bury James Harden & Co., set a strong tone early with his versatile array of looks. Leonard took over in the second quarter, scoring 14 of his 18 first-half points while hitting all six of his free throws.
But more than anything, it was the Spurs’ vaunted defense that had Golden State in unfamiliar territory. Not only did the Warriors shoot just 13 of 38 in the first half (34.2%), with Thompson missing five of six shots and Green turning in an out-of-character minus-20 mark that was the Warriors’ worst, but they fell prey to the sort of sloppiness that was nowhere to be found in their first two rounds.
There were 10 first-half turnovers in all, this after they averaged just 11.5 per game in series victories against Portland and Utah (second-best ranking among playoff teams). During the regular season, the Warriors ranked 22nd in the NBA in turnovers per game (14.8). And as if the sheer quantity of the giveaways wasn’t bad enough, their timing was even tougher.
After the Warriors cut the Spurs’ lead from 25 to 14 in the second quarter, a Curry flurry in which he hit Golden State’s first three-pointer of the game at the 5:05 mark to cap a 13-2 run, the blunders ensued. Curry drove from the right side and found himself stuck in traffic on the baseline, only to swing a hook-shot pass to the perimeter that was picked off by Patty Mills. Leonard converted on the other end, navigating through bodies in the lane en route to a three-point play that pushed the lead back to 20. Time and again, with the Spurs’ defensive pressure omnipresent, the Warriors would miss their small window of opportunity.
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