It’s easy to feel a little bad for San Antonio Spur Kawhi Leonard, also known as the man who would be the undisputed favorite for NBA MVP… if Steph Curry had taken the year off to pursue baseball or juggling or artisanal yogurt cultivation. After all, the 24-year-old was thrust into the spotlight as the Spurs and the Warriors went head to head on Monday night, and most of the ensuing coverage was dedicated to Chef Curry’s dismantling of the league’s best defense and the league’s best defender. Leonard is still the league’s best defender, even after Monday’s game, and the Spurs are still the league’s best defense (they are currently giving up the fewest points per game across the board and have the highest defensive rating in the league), but there’s no way to avoid saying this: They got stomped, losing 120-90 and causing Pop to make a David Blatt joke in the aftermath.
Sure, San Antonio was playing without Tim Duncan — it is, as you’ve read once or twice before during his two decades of NBA tenure, impossible to overstate how much The Big Fundamental changes everything for the silver and black — so giving Leonard, Pop, and company a bit of a pass is understood. No Duncan, no deal, if you will, but the way Golden State made the Spurs look human has got to unnerve everyone. Everyone knows that Curry will make circus shots look like smart, high percentage baskets at this point, but if Leonard looked like that every night on defense this year, he’d be worse than the Lakers on that side of the ball.
The above stat suffers from some small sample size, as well as conflation between a team and an individual player (and a few other things), but as a metaphor, you’d be hard-pressed to find one better: Steph Curry makes the best defender in the league look like the worst defensive team in the modern NBA. Rough stuff that Leonard doesn’t deserve, in all honesty, considering his career record against the Dubs. Let’s break down what happened that game.
For one, Leonard had a bad night. That can be read as a stupidly obvious point, but it’s also worth examining, insofar as it wasn’t simply Curry being Curry. In fact, Leonard only forced one miss over the course of the game, and the Dubs finished the night with nearly 60% eFG — that is, they didn’t miss across the board (the reigning NBA MVP shot a casual 60% from the field all on his own, because he has all the cheat codes for life written down on the inside of his eyelids or something). Defensive effort has a way of being understated in a blowout loss, and if you return to the absence of Duncan, the glue that allows the Spurs to put Leonard on a player like Curry and still hide Tony Parker without a natural disaster unfolding, it’s clear that this game has much more “one game in January” in its DNA than “matchup-defining loss.”
It’s perfectly fair to give Curry and the Dubs the status of “Dragon Killer”-killer with the ease that they dispatched San Antonio last night, particularly given the undercurrent of talk surrounding the Spurs as the real best team in the NBA over the last 30 days or so (shout out to Sam Amick and Jesus Gomez, who both touched on this earlier in the month), but however redundant and cliche as it sounds: The regular season is just the regular season, and one game is just one game. Duncan’s being rested for the playoffs, San Antonio won’t look as flat over a seven game series as they did on Monday, and the road to the Finals is just as rocky for all involved as it was before these two titans met.