All season long: Cavs-Warriors, Cavs-Warriors, Cavs-Warriors. That's all anyone talks about. The rest of the league is an afterthought. They're all merely members of the montage being flash-forwarded through in preparation for the movie's main event.
But what about the Spurs?
San Antonio waltzed into Cleveland on Saturday and walked out with a 118-115 overtime victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Kawhi Leonard finished with a career-high 41 points, including the punctuating dunk off a stolen pass to finish the Cavs once and for all.
The Spurs now have victories against the Warriors at Oracle Arena and the Cavaliers in Quicken Loans. They've also snatched victories in Houston, Boston and Utah. They have the fourth best offense in the league, and the third best defense. Their star player is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, who is having an MVP-caliber season, has scored at least 30 points in each of his past six games.
What more do they need to do to show they belong?
The Spurs are still right there, at 34-9, only three games back of the Warriors for the No. 1 seed. They're on pace for 64 wins. They always skate under the radar , they always wind up in position, they are the most disciplined team in the league. This victory, coupled with their résumé, their stats, their whole genetic makeup as a basketball team, should mean that we consider it to be a three-team race.
Everyone respects Gregg Popovich. They respect Kawhi Leonard. They respect the team's culture and the way they play. LeBron James himself continues to stand in awe of Popovich. But for whatever reason, this team doesn't scare anyone.
And that's a bigger issue.
The Spurs were without Tony Parker due to a foot injury and Pau Gasol due to a hand injury, and their success vs. the Cavs did not come despite those two future Hall of Famers' absence. The added mobility of David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon helped contain in the pick and roll. The aggressiveness of rookie starting point guard Dejounte Murray gave them a boost. But in the playoffs, Parker and Gasol will be there, and will be part of the rotation. If they are available, Popovich respects them too much not to play them.
Then there's Leonard. Leonard's offensive efficiency across every measure of versatility is simply breathtaking. The biggest change, as Leonard has become more and more of a star, is his ability to take advantage of whatever mismatch presents itself. LeBron James didn't guard Leonard for most of the game, and the Cavs instead sacrificed Richard Jefferson at his altar. Leonard went Hannibal Lector on him:
When the Cavs used smaller, quicker defenders on him, he bullied them in the post:
And when Tristan Thompson switched onto him, Leonard shot over the long arms of Thompson:
You watch him, and he's a top-flight player, he looks like an MVP. But in clutch time, as the Spurs' lead evaporated, Leonard went 2 for 7 with two turnovers. The Spurs were outscored by six, but hung on for the victory in overtime anyway. Against the Clippers in 2015 and the Thunder in 2016, Leonard disappeared as the Spurs' series stretched on. He had a strong second half of Game 6 vs. the Thunder, but by then it was too late.
And then, on Saturday, all of it was wrapped into a sequence.
With the Spurs up three with under 24 seconds to go, Leonard was tied up by LeBron James. It was disastrously close to a turnover. James won the tap, but Kevin Love was forced to dive out of bounds for the ball, and could only whip it behind him ... straight to Leonard. Leonard then burst out of the pack and straight to the rim for the clinching score.
So did Leonard fade in clutch time and luck out? Or make the plays when they were most needed, handing the Spurs a victory supported his career high?
The answer depends on your perspective.
In the end, this game wasn't about answers. It didn't decide whether the Spurs are a contender, or if Leonard is really ready to carry a team against the best teams, or if this Spurs team is better without Gasol and Parker. But what it does is require that we ask these questions. We can keep talking about Cavs-Warriors. We need to keep talking about Cavs-Warriors. However, the Spurs' victory at Cleveland on Saturday does require that, under many contexts, we ask this question:
So what about the Spurs?
Three other quick notes:
1. The Cavaliers were 12 for 22 at the line, and Kevin Love was 1 for 6 on corner 3-pointers in his first game back from a back injury. He missed two on one possession, both good looks, and the final attempt in overtime, when he was open. Every losing team can look to things that could have gone differently, but those loom large.
2. LeBron James had seven turnovers to seven assists. It's the latest in a series of big games, along with the loss to the Warriors last week, where James has had turnover problems. It's not really on him, it's guys not being in the right position on passes, but right now the Cavs don't have the level of continuity they had at the start of the season.
3. The Cavaliers had 11 offensive rebounds but only six second-chance points. The Spurs had 10 offensive boards and 15 second-chance points. Sometimes it's not about the loose balls you secure but what you do with them.