Expect the Spurs to ‘sustain’ through yet another bad break
SAN ANTONIO — I had a column partially written and ready to adjust accordingly to the matchup between Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. Whether Durant went off or Leonard managed to stifle him; whether Gregg Popovich and the Spurs had a game plan to flummox the league’s top scorer or Scott Brooks and the Thunder had a proper reaction — I had a column ready to write.
I did not, however, predetermine this outcome or pre-write this lede: Oklahoma City came into San Antonio and beat the defending Western Conference champs for the third time this season, 111-105, but a Leonard injury left the Spurs with more than just their tenth loss.
The Spurs’ young forward and only player on the roster capable of making life consistently difficult for Durant was knocked out of the game in the second quarter with a non-displaced fracture of the fourth metacarpal in his right hand. More simply, he broke his ring finger on a freak play during which his digit got caught on the arm of Steven Adams while he was fighting through a screen in the first quarter. Leonard briefly re-entered the game in the second quarter before being pulled for good.
From there, defending the hottest player on the planet while dealing with a point guard (Reggie Jackson) the Spurs can’t seem to slow down became an impossibility. They swarmed Durant, showed different looks on every possession and even employed a zone defense on several occasions; but when 6-foot-3 Cory Joseph guarding an otherworldly scorer who’s eight inches taller is the lasting image from the game, you’re lucky if the next vision you recall isn’t the number ’50’ next to Durant’s name in the box score.
The Thunder star went for 36 points on 22 shots (and a career-high 11 turnovers, but nevermind that) while Jackson, his running buddy and newest Spur-killer, cruised to 27 points and eight assists. As if a healthy Russell Westbrook and Durant aren’t difficult enough, the team’s backup point guard is now averaging 23.7 points per game on 67 percent shooting in three matchups with the Spurs this season. So that’s a thing that is fun.
Oklahoma City shot 54 percent from the floor, including 10-of-18 from three (a major issue with the Spurs’ defense this season), and even Tony Parker’s game-high and season-high 37 points never felt like close to being enough. Not because he wasn’t spectacular — he was — but because as long as there was time on the clock, the Spurs weren’t getting any stops.
The San Antonio defense was already hamstrung without Tiago Splitter (sprained shoulder) and Danny Green (broken hand); now, without Leonard, it’s downright in traction.
Fans will concern themselves with the “Spurs can’t beat the NBA’s elite” narrative that won’t die until they do; that’s understandable, as perspective is difficult to maintain when emotion is involved. But this team is now missing three of its top defensive players, and in a conference full of perimeter flamethrowers and interior high-flyers, that’s a big problem.
The main reason San Antonio made as deep a run as it did last season was because of an elite-level defense, not just because of efficient offensive output. The Spurs defended the rim very well with the Splitter – Tim Duncan interior, and Green and Leonard combine for a great perimeter duo that went a long way in thwarting teams with multiple perimeter threats. Now, all of that is missing.
The loss of Splitter put a much larger burden on Duncan’s shoulders, and the Green injury that followed soon thereafter deprived Leonard of his defensive wingman. In games like the one on Friday against Portland or last night with Oklahoma City in town, the Spurs don’t have an answer for teams with multiple perimeter scoring threats at this point. Hell, now they don’t have an answer for anyone with a single perimeter scoring threat. Where before they could stick Leonard on the opposition’s rangy small forward and Green on the secondary option, they’re now having to rely on Joseph as a reserve wing defender. He’s solid, but he’s also one of the smallest players on the court at all times.
On Jan. 4, the Spurs entered a game against the Clippers at full strength; on Jan. 22, they left the AT&T Center down three starters. Duncan is on an island now, surrounded by crafty but smallish veterans not known for their abilities as one-on-one defenders. The Spurs will score 110 points a night, but they’re in danger of giving up nearly as many. Though while it looks bad now, it could’ve been so much worse.
An MRI confirmed what Leonard’s original prognosis indicated: it’s a clean, non-displaced break that won’t require surgery, and a timetable for his return has been set in the three- to four-week range. That would mark a return-date in mid- to late-February.
The next week or so might be rough, but this isn’t as brutal as it seems. Leonard’s fracture will be the most significant injury the Spurs have dealt with thus far this season, but the reinforcements will be in soon and a Downy-soft Eastern Conference schedule awaits them on the first leg of the upcoming Rodeo Road Trip. Splitter is on the team’s current three-game roadie, something Gregg Popovich said on Wednesday would probably not be the case, and Green’s injury is apparently healing quickly, so says the man himself.
Before you know it, the Spurs’ defensive backbone will be back on the floor with his shoulder hopefully healthy, and not long after that they’ll have their second-best perimeter defender and arguably the top spot-up shooter on the team back in the fold. Step by step, the Spurs will get three crucial players back in the lineup in the near future, and this stretch of extreme discomfort will be an afterthought if they recover and maintain their position near the top of the conference.
We’ve written and discussed ad nauseum the fact that despite not playing all that well, San Antonio is in great shape considering its record and place in the Western Conference standings, and it’s for reasons like these. The cushion this team has built affords it the ability to lose an extra game or two here and there while players recover from injury, and we’ve all seen how this group responds when critical pieces go down. Surefire losses turn to late-night battles or even closely fought wins, and suddenly the retrospective on less-than-desirable stretches of schedule turns to feelings of admiration and, “How the hell do they keep doing this?” conversation.
And perhaps lost in all of this is the health of the Big Three. Splitter, Green and especially Leonard are critical elements of the San Antonio attack, but the players who have long been the team’s best are picking up the slack however they can. They’re not what they used to be, and Duncan, Parker and Ginobili need the help of their young, athletic counterparts, but they’re still more than capable of navigating a deep team through short, bumpy patches of road.
It won’t be easy, and the long-term issues that face this team with the explosive Thunder, the impossible Trail Blazers, the frustrating Rockets and the frightening Warriors are different stories altogether.
But for now, they’ll worry about what they can control with a shorthanded team. Malcolm Thomas, who was recently guaranteed a contract, has been released so the Spurs can create roster space for the potential signing of Othyus Jeffers of the D-League’s Iowa Energy. It was a move made out of necessity, as the absence of Leonard and Green has left San Antonio without a viable small forward on the roster. But they’ll figure out a way through this.
“We will sustain,” Duncan said following a disheartening loss to the Thunder and another against one of the league’s elite.
I believe him. After all, they’ve never given us reason to believe otherwise. The day they do? Well, that’s another column I’ll be ill-prepared to write.