OAKLAND - If no one gave the San Antonio Spurs a chance before Game 1, even more are counting them out for Game 2 as Kawhi Leonard will sit out with an ankle injury.
But the Spurs are fighters and have has success with Kawhi on the bench, including closing out the Rockets in Game 6 of their previous series in Houston.
For the second time in six days, the Spurs find themselves heading into a playoff game on the road without Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker.
The last time they were in this predicament, the Silver and Black defied the odds and rolled to a series-clinching, 39-point rout of the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of their Western Conference semifinal series.
Last Thursday must seem like a month ago to the Spurs, who face the challenge of having to bounce back after surrendering a 25-point lead to Golden State in a 113-111 loss Sunday in Game 1 of the conference finals.
Game 2 is at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif.
“Last night was not just a physical beating,” Spurs guard Danny Green said Monday, “but (an) emotionally and mentally draining game for us.”
A loss is a loss, but the Spurs’ letdown is understandable. They controlled the game for nearly two and a half quarters before Leonard, their franchise player, reinjured his sprained left ankle while shooting a jumper from the corner with 7:55 left in the third quarter and San Antonio up 76-55.
TV replays showed Warriors center Zaza Pachulia stepping on Leonard’s left foot as he contested the shot near the Spurs’ bench. Pachulia was whistled for a foul on the play. Leonard made both free throws to give the Silver and Black a 23-point lead, but he was in too much pain to finish the game.
Escorted to the Spurs’ locker room by team athletic trainer Will Sevening, Leonard limped off the court with 7:53 remaining in the third period and never returned. The Warriors got back in the game with an 18-0 run after Leonard’s exit, and pulled out the victory in the final minute.
Leonard was officially scratched from the lineup before the game on Tuesday, when Popovich announced that Jonathon Simmons will start in his place. Simmons started Game 6 against the Houston Rockets the last time Leonard had to sit with an injury.
“We’ve just got to pull it together and keep fighting through it until the very end,” veteran center Pau Gasol said. “We just can’t control that two of our main players got hurt. We haven’t allowed this situation to stop us or limit us, or wear us out or take something emotionally from us.”
Leonard said after the game Sunday that he didn't think Pachulia was intentionally trying to injure him when he contested what turned out to be Leonard’s last shot Sunday. But Leonard, who did not speak to reporters Monday, said he hadn’t seen a video replay.
Popovich took a decidedly different view and sparked a firestorm of controversy Monday when he went off on Pachulia. He blasted the Warriors’ backup center for “a totally unnatural closeout” when he contested Leonard’s shot.
“A two-step, lead-with-your-foot closeout is not appropriate,” Popovich told reporters. “It’s dangerous. It’s unsportsmanlike.”
Popovich said Pachulia “has a history with that kind of action,” and listed examples of Pachulia’s questionable plays, including getting whistled for a flagrant 2 foul when he played with Dallas and elbowed Spurs guard Patty Mills.
Pachulia defended himself Monday, saying “I’m not a dirty player” and denying that he was trying to injure Leonard.
Popovich, in turn, was criticized Monday by some pundits who said he was being hypocritical. They recalled that Popovich defended former Spurs defensive specialist Bruce Bowen when he was called out for stepping under shooters, as Popovich said Pachulia did on the play in which Leonard was injured.
Leonard initially sprained his left ankle in the third quarter of the Spurs’ overtime victory against Houston in Game 5 of the conference semifinals. He missed the second half of the fourth quarter and all of OT, and was held out of Game 6.
The Silver and Black already were playing without Parker, who was lost for the remainder of the postseason after rupturing a left quadriceps tendon in Game 2 of the series against Houston.
For their part, Spurs players have let Popovich address the controversy surrounding Leonard’s injury and focused on bouncing back from Sunday’s gut-wrenching loss.
“All we can control, to be honest is going out in Game 2, and playing hard and playing hard to get back on track,” said Patty Mills, who has started the last three games at point guard. “I think the belief still within the group is that no matter who is on the floor or not, we’ve still got a great opportunity here.
“We all believe that no matter who is on the court, we can go and get this done. We’ve grown closer as a group as the season has gone on, and that belief and trust in one another is so important, and we have that.”
Simmons was outstanding in the series clincher against the Rockets, finishing with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting, four assists and one steal. He had 12 points in Game 1 of the conference finals.
Simmons has stepped up his game significantly in the postseason, averaging 9.1 points and shooting 48.3 percent from the field. He averaged 6.2 points and shot 42 percent during the regular season.
“We’re professionals,” Simmons said, when asked if it’s an emotional burden to go into a playoff game without Leonard and Parker. “We have to be prepared for stuff like this. That’s why they tell everybody to stay ready.”
Although the Spurs routed Houston on the road to clinch the previous challenge, Simmons has no illusions about the challenge they face Tuesday night.
“It’s a lot of difference because it’s a lot more guys, better guys that we have to cover,” Simmons said. “They play better as a team together than the Rockets did, so we just have to watch the film and see what we can get better for Game 2.”
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