San Antonio Spurs: What if Zaza Never Injured Kawhi Leonard?

Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw, Zaza Pachulia
Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw, Zaza Pachulia / Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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San Antonio Spurs
Manu Ginobili, James Harden / Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

San Antonio Spurs' 2017 Postseason

Without Kawhi leaving the game, the San Antonio Spurs stun the Bay Area and beat the Warriors by 14 points in Oracle Arena. The Spurs go on to lose the next game as the Warriors bounce back and Golden State steals one at the AT&T Center in Game 3.

The Spurs again rout the Warriors in Game 4, tying the series at two apiece. Unfortunately for the Spurs, this Warriors team is too good and too fast, and despite Kawhi averaging 29 points, six assists, five rebounds, two and a half steals, and a block over games five and six, the Spurs lose in six games. 

San Antonio Spurs' 2017-18 Season

Despite a heartbreaking loss in last year’s playoffs, the Spurs bounce back. Without Kawhi, they finished 7th in the West. With him back, healthy, and an MVP candidate, the Spurs win a total of 53 games as opposed to 47. Leonard finishes second in MVP voting behind James Harden, and the Spurs finish third in the Western Conference behind Houston and Golden State. 

In the first round, the Spurs run into the Utah Jazz. Donovan Mitchell decides to show everyone why he deserved to win Rookie of the Year over Ben Simmons and explodes for 27.5 points on 48% shooting from deep. Danny Green simply can’t keep up. 

On the other end, the Spurs play solid, team basketball, and they manage to easily beat the Jazz in five games, advancing on to face the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Semifinals. 

In order to beef up the defensive side of the ball, Popovich opts to give rookie guard Derrick White substantial minutes in place of Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills. It works. White only averages nine points over the series but a backcourt of him, Green, and Kawhi manage to hold Durant, Curry, and Thompson to minimal damage. In a grueling, surprisingly low-scoring series, the Spurs manage to win in seven games. 

After shocking the world and beating the favored Warriors this time around, the Spurs have a Texas duel with the one-seeded Houston Rockets. In an interview before game one, Kawhi is asked if he thinks he deserves the MVP award over James Harden. To the delight of Spurs fans, Kawhi says he just wants to win another ring and he’d take Finals MVP over regular season MVP any day of the week. It was the longest answer to any question he gave during that interview. 

The 2018 Western Conference Finals is regarded as one of the best series ever. Houston has home-court advantage, and it looks like that is the deciding factor. Games 1 and 2 are absolute shootouts and the Spurs can’t keep up. 

In Games 3 and 4, the Spurs hold the Rockets to an average of 92 points between both games and easily win both of them. Game 5 in Houston is another shootout. Popovich throws Green, Leonard, Mills, really everyone on James Harden but he still scores 58 points. In a post-game interview, he proclaims himself the best player in the world. David Robinson takes to Twitter minutes later and simply writes “the best player in the world...doesn’t have any rings?” It gets over two hundred thousand likes. 

Game 6 is much of the same as the other games in San Antonio and the apparent “best player in the world” musters only 15 points while shooting 4-of-16 from deep. The Spurs win 105-89.

While the Spurs have some momentum, they are yet to win a game in Houston. This game is more conventional, with the score going back and forth over and over. With 18 seconds left, LaMarcus Aldridge gets a mismatch with Eric Gordan, backs him down, and hits a 14-foot jumper to put the Spurs up, 101-100. 

The Rockets have a timeout, which they promptly use to draw up one last play. The Spurs double-team Harden, so Chris Paul receives the inbound pass. He immediately cuts to the basket with 15 seconds left. He’s met by Aldridge down low and dishes it out to Harden, who passes up the fairly open three.

He dances behind the arc, evades Danny Green, and goes up for the layup. Aldridge, switched off Clint Capela, jumps with Harden, and tips the ball straight up. Harden slides to the floor with his hands in the air but doesn’t get the call. A replay shows that Aldridge got all ball. The Spurs advance to the 2018 Finals and face LeBron James and the Cavaliers. 

Let’s be honest with ourselves. 2018 playoff LeBron James was probably the greatest player to ever step on a basketball court. What made him so great? He put his team on his back and carried JR Smith and Kevin Love to the Finals.

LeBron simply couldn’t do it anymore. He single-handedly pushed the Spurs to six games, but everyone watching knew the series wasn’t that close. The Spurs win their sixth championship, Kawhi easily wins his second Finals MVP despite a heroic effort from James, and he is crowned the best player in the world after beating Curry, Durant, Harden, and LeBron James in a single playoff run.