Manu Ginobili Was Balling, But Kawhi Leonard Is the Real Story From Game 5
Manu Ginobili had 12 points for the Spurs and made the defensive play of the game. But it's Kawhi Leonard's status for Game 6 that's the real story.
San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) watches from the bench during overtime against the Houston Rockets in game five of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center.
Well, we finally got a decent game last night, for the first time in what feels like forever. And as fun as it was to watch the Rockets and Spurs duel down the stretch of Game 5 Tuesday, did the possibility of no Kawhi Leonard in Game 6 ruin the ending for you the way it did me?
After trashing the NBA Playoffs Monday for how truly awful they’ve been, when blowouts have been the norm rather than nail-biters, we’re not here to pile on with the hate because what’s there to slander after we got a gritty, gutty performance out of the Spurs to pull out the game sans the services of their MVP candidate?
Game 5 was a good one, a one-possession contest for most of the fourth quarter and overtime, despite both teams struggling mightily to score during crunch time. Manu Ginobili made your timeline pop by turning back the clock as the 39-year-old darted and dunked his way to 12 points while making the defensive play of the game on James Harden’s 3-point attempt that would have tied the game as overtime ended. But he’s not the story from Game 5. The Beard himself had another impressive performance, going for 30, 10, and 10—as pretty a line as you’ll see in the box score, until your finger keeps scrolling to the right and you see that he also finished with nine turnovers. Harden, possibly the league MVP, almost had a dubious quadruple-double in a losing effort. But he’s not the story from Game 5 either.
They desperately need a highly effective Leonard otherwise a Rockets’ blowout in Game 6 feels inevitable. And the prospects of holding off Houston in Game 7, even in San Antonio, does not appear that much more promising.
The only thing that matters from Game 5, the only thing we really need to focus on moving forward, is the status of Leonard. The All-NBA forward hurt his ankle stepping on Harden in the third quarter and wasn’t the same player down the stretch. It was shocking to see Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sit Leonard for such a huge swath of the fourth quarter when the Spurs couldn’t throw the basketball in the ocean. Leonard couldn’t keep Harden from darting into the lane for easy layups and and-1 opportunities. So Popovich kept him from being a liability.
Sitting on the bench, hampered by an injury that wouldn’t let him do the things we expect from one of the game’s elites, all Leonard could do was watch and seethe. His squad pulled it out, thanks to Ginobili and Danny Green. Now up 3-2, the elation of the win quickly wears off with Game 6 scheduled for Thursday, and a potential Game 7 looming this weekend. A day off isn’t going to magically heal an ankle that was bad enough to keep him on the bench for so many crucial possession in the Spurs most crucial game of the season. Leonard has vowed to be back for Game 6. And considering how upset he looked to be reduced to a spectator for the final 34.5 seconds of the fourth and all of overtime, only a Herculean effort from Popovich to not let Leonard back on the floor would keep him from playing.
"Yeah, I'm going to be able to play," Leonard said. "It was frustrating because I wanted to play. But I was happy seeing my teammates out there putting in a good effort and getting the win."
Leonard finished with 22 points and 15 boards, but was a shell of himself after injuring the ankle. Predictably, the prospects of the Spurs not having a fully effective Claw for Game 6, and possibly Game 7, had them shook. Stating the obvious, Ginobili told reporters after the game he didn’t want to think about losing Leonard "because Kawhi became our go-to guy, our three guy, three defender, rebounder. If he can't be out there, it's going to be very hard to react to it.”
The Spurs can’t expect Ginobili to repeat his performance Tuesday. They can’t expect Pau Gasol to revert back to peak Pau. And they can’t expect LaMarcus Aldridge, who has looked stiff and been inconsistent during the series, to suddenly carry the Spurs. They’re already without Tony Parker. They desperately need a highly effective Leonard otherwise a Rockets’ blowout in Game 6 feels inevitable. And the prospects of holding off Houston in Game 7, even in San Antonio, does not appear that much more promising.