HOUSTON – It’s one thing for the Spurs to survive one overtime period without their superstar small forward, Kawhi Leonard, as they did in a dramatic Game 5 win on Tuesday at AT&T Center.
It is an altogether different level of amazing when they dominate an entire game without Leonard, a player Gregg Popovich called the best in the NBA just two weeks ago.
The sprained left ankle Leonard suffered in the third quarter of the Tuesday win kept him out of Thursday’s Game 6 of their NBA Western Conference Semifinals series against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center, but it didn’t matter. The Spurs scored a 114-75 blowout win that gave them a 4-2 win in the best-of-seven series and a berth in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
Roll that 39-point margin of victory around your head for a moment, the largest in a road playoff victory in club history and just one point shy of the largest margin in any Spurs playoff game, home or away. With the Spurs missing two key players – Tony Parker is out for the remainder of the playoffs with a ruptured left quadriceps tendon – few expected the Spurs to win Game 6 on Houston’s home court, let alone humiliate their Interstate-10 rivals.
“I think everybody was stunned,” said Spurs guard Danny Green, who had two steals and two blocks, a cog in one of the Spurs’ most forceful defensive showings in any playoff game in club history. “I don’t think anybody expected that, especially no Kawhi, no Tony. It just goes to show you that on any given night anything can happen in the NBA, especially in the playoffs.”
Leonard has been the focus of the Spurs offense all season, and more so in the playoffs, during which he has averaged 28.4 points per game. On Thursday, Popovich orchestrated his offense through the post, and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge turned in a clutch playoff performance for the ages, scoring 34 points and grabbing 12 rebounds.
“He’s been like that through the first two rounds,” Popovich said of Aldridge. “He’s really turned it on, demanded the ball, got in good position, using his body, not always settling for the jumper. Got to the rim, did a really good job.”
It was precisely the offensive explosion the Spurs needed in Leonard’s absence.
“I was trying to be more dominant down there,” Aldridge said, “so I was willing to take some contested shots tonight, and got into my rhythm early. After that, I was good to go.”
Aldridge got plenty of support, too, especially from Leonard’s replacement in the starting lineup, Jonathan Simmons. The second-year pro, who grew up in Houston, scored a career playoff high 18 points.
Simmons also took the bulk of the defensive work on Houston’s MVP candidate, James Harden, and the results were shocking. The No. 2 scorer in the NBA this season, Harden totaled only 10 points, on 2-for-10 shooting, and committed 6 turnovers. He deflected credit for holding Harden to the least productive game of Houston’s playoff run this spring, calling it a team effort.
“Just be solid and communicate between the five of us on the court,” Simmons said. “It was mostly the four guys behind me that helped me, that talked to me and we were able come together and we were on a string tonight. Coach said it: He’d never seen us moving like that and there was a lot of truth to that. It was a big team effort.
“We were ready to get this series over and we just showed it tonight.”
By winning while Leonard avoided stress on his sore ankle, the Spurs star figures to be ready for Game 1 against the Warriors, who won 67 regular season games and swept both the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz to gain their spot in the Western Finals. A first team All-NBA selection and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard was scratched from the Spurs lineup a few hours before tipoff of Game 6. Popovich judged his sprained left ankle too sore to risk exposing it to the rigors of a game the Rockets knew could be their last.
Leonard did not accede to Popovich’s decision without a fight.
“[He said] he’d rather play,” Popovich said. “Competitors are competitors. They want to play. We have a responsibility to make sure the situation is safe and that it’s best for the team as a whole. That’s part of the decision-making process.”
The decision by the Spurs coach on Thursday was flawless, a win-win for his team and his best player.
The Spurs never had beaten their Interstate-10 rivals in a playoff series, 0-3 before this season. It was the first time the two teams had met in the post-season since 1995, when the Rockets beat the Spurs in a Western Conference finals matchup.
Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 14, at Oracle Arena in Oakland. The game will be telecast by ESPN.