Last night, the San Antonio Spurs had a game for the ages in the NBA, shutting down Houston’s MVP candidate James Harden. But in doing so, they may have also cost their best player, the injured Kawhi Leonard, his chance at winning his first MVP Award.
Lacking two of their biggest stars, a year after the franchise’s best player retired, the Spurs closed out the Houston Rockets in six games on the road with a 39 point win in the Western Semifinal Series. In doing so, they held James Harden of the Houston Rockets to perhaps his worst game as a professional basketball player.
And the statistics don’t tell the whole tale. The highly-talented Harden of Houston looked confused and lost, making all kinds of turnovers and mental mistakes. In fact, the entire Rockets team looked as though they were stuck in a bad dream.
That’s because Houston was supposed to be the easy winners. They humiliated the Spurs early in the series to take away home court advantage. San Antonio had to play their best game just to win game 2, and then fight hard to take back the series initiative, winning one of two in Houston. In Game 5, ageless Argentinian Guard Manu Ginobili blocked a Harden three-point attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, helping his team manage a 110-107 win in overtime.
But it was a costly night for San Antonio in Game 5. Already seeing future Hall-of-Fame point guard Tony Parker lost for the year with an injury, the Spurs lost Kawhi Leonard to an injury as well. That’s why the team had to limp their way to a narrow win to take a three-to-two game lead in the best of seven series.
Already, the pundits were writing off the Spurs. They predicted Ginobili’s block to be more of a “last gasp” for the proud franchise’s incredible run since Coach Greg Popovich took over. Other sportscasters noted that without Leonard for Game 6, and possibly Game 7, Houston was the favorite to win the series, and would provide the more intriguing matchup with the Golden State Warriors.
Houston looked like they read too many of their headlines proclaiming themselves the favorite. And without Parker and Leonard, why not? What would they have to prepare for?
But that’s because they underestimated Greg Popovich, the talented but inconsistent LaMarcus Aldrdige, Pau Gasol, Jonathon Simmons, the ageless Manu Ginobili, Patty Mills and rookie guard Dejounte Murray. All are underrated, but they turned in an incredible performance. The team led by more than 20 points going into halftime, and kept their foot on the gas pedal the whole game in the 114-75 blowout. The Rockets looked more like SCUD Missile duds. Coach Mike D’Antoni looked as confused as his players by the Spurs outburst, led by Aldridge, who turned in a career game.
Yet sadly, the Spurs may have lost their team leader, Kawhi Leonard, the MVP trophy. A top-notch defender, good scorer, and winner of the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, Leonard was considered a top 4 candidate (even the best candidate by many), along with Harden, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Stephen Curry of the Warriors. But just as the Spurs showed that Harden wasn’t one of league’s best, they also proved they could win without Leonard. Now it’s a battle between James and Curry.
However, the Spurs have put Leonard in a chance to win another NBA Finals MVP. If he can return from the injury, and his teammates play this well, it will be the Spurs hoisting the finals trophy for 2017, instead of the Warriors, Cavs or Boston Celtics.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.