No NBA team in history has climbed out of a 3-0 deficit in a playoff series. The San Antonio Spurs must face that daunting fact, as they play a historically great Golden State Warriors team in Game 4 of the Western conference Finals tomorrow night. Furthermore, they must confront the challenge without the help of Tony Parker and MVP-Finalist Kawhi Leonard. Tony went down with a ruptured quadriceps tendon in Game 2 of the Spurs series against the Rockets. Kawhi is injured on account of what may or may not have been a nefarious defensive play by Zaza Pachulia that occurred in Game 1 of the Warriors-Spurs series.
Normally, I’m okay with accepting a Spurs playoff exit if they are bested by a clearly superior opponent. And the Warriors may very well be superior. Indeed, we’re talking about a Warriors lineup of four 2017 NBA All-Stars, two of whom have been league MVP before. They are going up against a Spurs lineup with just one 2017 NBA All-Star, whose name is Kawhi Leonard, and wont be playing. The Warriors are undeniably more talented. But are they the better team? The answer, unfortunately, is unclear.
Watch that clip of Kawhi crumpling under Pachulia’s extended leg again. Look at the score: 76-55. The Spurs were rolling in that game. But after Kawhi left, the Warriors ripped off an 18-0 run, ultimately coming back to win the game 113-111. If Kawhi doesn’t go down in Game 1, then dollars to donuts we are looking at a 2-1 Golden State lead in the series, at the very worst for San Antonio. Who knows what would have happened in Game 2 and Game 3 if Kawhi had been able to play. But regardless, that Game 1 outcome totally shifts the landscape of the series. The hypotheticals are torturous.
When Kawhi went down, I was enraged at Pachulia. The Macedonian big man has a reputation for rough play, and I was convinced he intentionally walked under Kawhi, who had injured the same ankle just a few plays before. Now, looking back on the series Pachulia’s potentially dirty play could have blown the entire series for the Spurs. And on a more basic level, he may have intentionally taken out a good and honest man, who wanted nothing more than to lead his team and compete in the NBA playoffs. Any Spurs fan, or basketball fan in general, would be justified to be angry.
However, over the past few years the Spurs have taught me a lot personally about how to react in such a situation. Because there are times in real life when you feel like you have a 20-point lead, and then fate slides a foot under you. I've been through a few moments when I felt like I was crumpled on the sideline, totally helpless and feeling like life is unfair. In such moments it's easy to be weighed down by the burdens of cynicism and regret. It is easy to be angry, and dwell on your misfortune.
But the Spurs have shown me that there are other options. Instead of idly rotting away, you can choose to snatch the pen from the authors of cruel circumstance and write your own next chapter. The Spurs did this recently when they endured a long season beneath the looming shadow of their horrific 2013 NBA Finals loss against the ideologically opposite Miami Heat. I remember watching Spurs games during that 2013/14 season, and the Game 6 three-point dagger from Ray Allen would be mentioned every matchup. I’m just a fan, and during that season every commentator’s mention, or replay from the series would sting like new. Watching this video right now is still tough. I cannot imagine how the players felt having moments from that series on constant repeat. However, during the season following the loss, the Spurs kept their heads down and focused all of their heartache into reaching the NBA Finals once again. Once they got there, the Spurs throttled the very same Miami Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals, winning in just 5 games. The Spurs won by a combined 74 points, the largest deficit in Finals history.
So now, with Tony out, with Kawhi out, and a postseason on the ropes, I'm not going to blame Pachulia or feel like this series is unfair. Because I know that come off-season, the Spurs won't either. They'll do what they have always done, keep fighting, and one day in the near future Pachulia's extra step will be a minor footnote in a great journey. Having said that, let’s come out tomorrow night and win one for Kawhi. Go Spurs Go!