by Mike Seely
In a 129-127 game in which the guy you're guarding goes for 44 points and your famously clutch teammate hits a three-pointer with one second to go for the win, it's tough to single out a defender's effort as the key to a team's success. Yet once Kawhi Leonard switched on to Steph Curry, who'd torched San Antonio for 22 points in the third quarter alone, the Spurs remembered that they had no business losing to the Golden State Warriors at home in the playoffs.
Manu Ginobili, 4 for 19 up until he found himself wide open with a lone tick left in double-OT ("I went from trading him on the spot to wanting to cook him breakfast tomorrow," said Coach Gregg Popovich of Ginobili's roller-coaster performance) was the clutch teammate in question, his heroics made all the more necessary by the fact that Tim Duncan retreated to the locker room with the flu with four minutes left in the fourth with his team down 16. Sans Duncan, the Spurs were forced to give Boris Diaw more continuous run than he's seen all year, and the flabby Frenchman responded with a pair of clutch baskets down the stretch. Yet the critical offensive factor in San Antonio's comeback was the frantic play of Tony Parker, who sauntered through the first three-and-a-half quarters before attacking the rim like he was suddenly playing in an elimination game.
It was the defensive brilliance of Leonard, however, which keyed the win. Before he assumed sole responsibility for checking Curry, the sublime Warrior guard--who played all 58 minutes--was hitting circus threes like he was in a layup line, and passing deftly whenever he was doubled. His ability to dish mandated a solo lockdown effort, which is precisely what Leonard delivered as his team charged back. Leonard's dossier was enhanced by a taut effort on offense--18 points on 7-11 shooting.
Impressive and resilient as they were, you can put a fork in the Warriors right now. Their Game 1 performance was the equivalent of an overmatched boxer with a big left hook landing his best punches early in a bout. The Spurs are awake now, and with Miami stumbling in their Eastern semi opener, all the stars seem to be aligning for San Antonio to swipe a fifth title to close out the Tim Duncan era. Of course, achieving such a goal won't hinge on Duncan's performance; it'll ride on the play of Leonard, whose checks in upcoming rounds could be the likes of Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Paul George. Can he stifle them like he did Curry? Kawhi not?!