OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors tried their hardest to drop Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Sunday. They racked up more turnovers than assists at the midway point. The coaching staff refused to use their Death Star lineup. Andre Iguodala played 10 total minutes. Klay Thompson made two shots. They spotted the Spurs a 25-point lead.
But Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant wouldn't let the Warriors die. Almost singlehandedly, Golden State's two MVPs brought their team back from the brink and led it to its ninth straight win to open the playoffs by overcoming what should've been an insurmountable deficit.
The Spurs had no business losing this game and they lost, but it's not their fault that they did. They led by 20 points at halftime because their defense rendered the Warriors' offense useless. Kawhi Leonard was in MVP form, contributing 26 points and playing stifling defense in 24 minutes of action. The Spurs, with Leonard on the court, were substantially better than a sloppy Warriors team.
The game undoubtedly turned when Leonard left midway through the third quarter after suffering a second knock to his ankle. He didn't return. Immediately after that injury, the Warriors embarked upon an 18-0 run. If Leonard doesn't land awkwardly on his teammates on the bench and Zaza Pachulia, the Spurs likely walk away with a Game 1 win.
That can't be denied.
But the Spurs' valiant effort after Leonard's injury still should've been enough to win. Heck, it would've been enough to topple every other team in the NBA that doesn't have Curry and Durant. Unfortunately for the Spurs, the Warriors have Curry and Durant.
That's not intended to be an insult directed at the Spurs. It's supposed to be a compliment. They really did deserve to win the game. After they recovered from the shock of losing Leonard, they battled right back at the Warriors, extending their lead to nine by the end of the third quarter and pushing it up to 11 to begin the fourth. Most teams fold when the Warriors hit them with one of their patented super strikes. The Spurs absorbed the Warriors' run and hit right back -- without their best player on the floor. That takes skill, courage, and good coaching.
And it should've been enough. It wasn't because of Curry and Durant. The Warriors overcame the deficit by letting their two best players operate in isolation and hoping their shots fell.
Their shots fell. Curry and Durant combined to score 74 of the Warriors' 113 points on 53-percent shooting. Meanwhile, as our Matt Moore pointed out, no other Warrior made more than four field goals. Thompson finished with six points. Draymond Green scored nine. Golden State's third-leading scorer was Pachulia, who totaled 11 points. So, it truly was a two-man effort.
"Steph got us going in the third," Durant said. "I tried to do my part in fourth. And we finished it off."
In that third quarter, even before Leonard went down, Curry exploded. He made his first three 3s, scoring 11 points in the first 3:15 of the third quarter. The Spurs kept hitting back, which is why their lead held firm, but it's worth wondering: If Curry doesn't connect on those shots at the onset of the quarter, how many points are the Warriors trailing by when Leonard goes down? At that point, the game might've already been out of reach.
Down the stretch in the fourth, it was primarily Durant who took over. His 3-pointer trimmed the lead to three. After a Spurs bucket, his pull-up cut it back to three again. His funky, lucky, and possibly illegal layup gave the Warriors a 101-100 lead with just over four minutes left to play.
Then it was Curry's turn. With less than two minutes remaining, the Spurs led by three -- told you they were resilient. But the Warriors knotted it up thanks to two offensive boards, which led to an open Curry 3. After missing his first 3 of the possession, which preceded a missed 3 by Durant, Curry buried the tying shot. In the final seconds, Curry banged in a runner to give the Warriors' a three-point lead, which ended up being the decisive bucket in a two-point game.
What this Warriors' win highlights is how difficult they are to beat even when they're bad. And man, were the Warriors at their worst for most of Sunday. They were a mess on both ends. Green had one of his worst passing performances of the season. The Warriors surrendered countless and-ones. They couldn't finish at the rim. The substitution patterns were suspect, as Mike Brown seemingly refused to go to his Death Star small lineup. And they still won, because their roster boasts the necessary individual talent to survive the games in which they don't play beautiful basketball.
The Warriors often like to emphasize ball movement and assists. They love to point out how much their second-unit contributes, specifically at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters. Their motto, of course, is #StrengthInNumbers. But that wasn't how they won. Even when they exploded, the Warriors offense was essentially reduced to letting their stars do their own thing alone.
"We have our identity predicated on the collective, the ball movement, player movement, using everybody's talents on the floor to create great shots," Curry said. "When you're in situations where there isn't any flow and you have to make plays, you know, that's what we're expected to do."
They captured Game 1 because Curry and Durant are great basketball players even when the basketball players around them aren't good. Curry and Durant's individual greatness bailed them out -- on and on until the Warriors won and the Spurs' chances were spent.
Before the game, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich ended his press conference by saying, "Somebody's going to win, somebody's going to lose. I just hope somebody doesn't get their butt kicked."
Popovich ended up getting his wish. For that, he can thank Curry and Durant, both of whom brought a lifeless team back from a butt-kicking and turned a blowout loss into an all-time win.