Ailene Voisin

The Spurs lost Sunday, but they’ve been winners for a long time under Popovich

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks with referee Tom Washington during Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Sunday in Oakland.
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks with referee Tom Washington during Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Sunday in Oakland. The Associated Press

The seasons change. The decades pass. The world appears to have gone completely mad, as Gregg Popovich suggested before the game, unable to resist another chance to poke the president.

Then there are the San Antonio Spurs. There are always the San Antonio Spurs. So, no, things aren’t completely nuts. The earth is still round, the Golden State Warriors predictably protected their homecourt and the two best teams remain on course for another rematch in the NBA Finals.

But we wuz robbed. We wuz robbed.

Before Kawhi Leonard twice tweaked his already sore left ankle and departed for the locker room in the third quarter, the Spurs had the heavily-favored Warriors on their heels, had them slow dancing through an uncharacteristically sloppy, sluggish performance. At Oracle Arena. In front of another sellout crowd. With their ailing head coach Steve Kerr in attendance for the first time since undergoing a procedure to address his chronic migraines, headaches and bouts of nausea.

A Spurs victory seemed inevitable, felt like the knockdown that would rescue a less-than-compelling postseason and serve as a prelude to a best-of-seven chess match between the master (Popovich) and his former assistant (Mike Brown) and player (Kerr).

Leonard, the 6-foot-7, 230-pound Most Valuable Player candidate – perhaps the best player on the planet, as teammate Pau Gasol volunteered – was old-school dominant. In baseball, he would be regarded as a five-tool player.

Before leaving with 7:53 remaining in the third period, with his Spurs leading 78-55, he scored 26 points on a variety of drives, dunks and free throws. He reached out with those massive hands of his and grabbed eight rebounds, used his endless arms to deflect passes and disrupt the passing lanes, leaned his powerful frame into one Warrior after another and provided a more than adequate imitation of injured point guard Tony Parker with three assists and dribble penetration.

“We need Kawhi to create, to score,” said veteran Manu Ginobili. “It means a lot to this team, and we were doing really well. So, yeah, we struggled a lot without him, and it’s a tough break. We couldn’t react to his absence.”

Leonard injured his ankle on the same spot on the floor – left corner, right in front of the visitors bench. The first incident occurred when he elevated for a 3-pointer and came down on Zaza Pachulia’s foot. After launching another deep jumper moments later, he landed awkwardly when his momentum carried him backwards, toward his own teammates and coaches. Visibly in pain, he put his hands on his head and motioned to the Spurs trainer; he was escorted to the locker room, limping.

The Warriors immediately responded with a 18-0 blitz that included 3-pointers by Stephen Curry, breakout dunks by Kevin Durant, free throws by Draymond Green and a deep jumper from Klay Thompson, who made just two shots all game. With sixth man Andre Iguodala on the bench with a sore knee, coach Mike Brown went longer with his bigger lineup and was rewarded by 11 important points from Pachulia.

But the Spurs weren’t finished quite yet. While Popovich openly shares his sentiments about the current administration, among other things, there is no weeping in San Antonio. David Robinson and Tim Duncan retire. Parker gets hurt, Ginobili gets old. But he pushes on, adapting his style to his personnel. En route to winning those five championships since 1999, the Spurs have employed lineups with two bigs (Robinson and Duncan), played at a methodical pace, sped up to accommodate the quickness of a young Parker-Ginobili backcourt, slowed down as their stars aged, adjusted again and again, somehow finding ways this season to compile the league’s second-best record.

The one aspect of Popovich’s philosophy that divides members of own coaching brethren – his decision to rest otherwise healthy players during the season to develop the youngsters and keep his veterans rested for the postseason – warrants another look given what his current squad has accomplished.

The Spurs, of course, now have zero chance against these immensely talented, balanced Warriors given Leonard’s precarious injury situation. But the Warriors would benefit from a challenge, from having to overcome deficits, remember their identity (defense comes before the track meet), and are forced to make their own lineup adjustments, particularly if Iguodala remains hobbled.

You know? Like the Spurs? When Leonard left, Ginobili, a future Hall of Famer who turns 40 in July, became the primary facilitator. Other times, the duties fell to rookie Dejounte Murray or Patty Mills, who labored through a 1-for-8 effort. But the Spurs never quit. They committed costly turnovers, failed to control the boards, missed a critical 3 (by LaMarcus Aldridge in the closing seconds), but never quit.

“We made too many mistakes,” Popovich said afterward. “I thought the rebounding hurt us. Our defense got a little in the mud. Couldn’t get anybody to score, and (the Warriors are) fairly talented, as it showed. Great effort, tough loss. Great opportunity and we let it slip away.”

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin