Barber: Warriors toppled Spurs’ mystique in 136-100 win

As San Antonio faltered in Kawhi Leonard's absence Tuesday, Golden State gained the mental edge and another win.|

OAKLAND - The San Antonio Spurs of the Gregg Popovich era have never been the most exciting or explosive team in the NBA. But frequently they have been the best. And more often than that, they have been the most reliable. Popovich's squads have been the league's fundamental gold standard, the team that gets the most out of its talent and, more than any of its opponents, does things in a way that would have pleased John Wooden or Pete Newell.

Well, Tuesday night at Oracle Arena, the Spurs rolled over and whimpered. The Warriors beat them 136-100 in Game 2 of the Western Conference final, and it could have been 200-58 if mercy hadn't overcome the home team.

I know what you're thinking, or might be thinking: The Spurs were playing without their best player, Kawhi Leonard, who reinjured his ankle under controversial circumstances in Game 1 when Warriors center Zaza Pachulia crowded him on a shot attempt, and without veteran point guard Tony Parker. It's unfair to judge them when they're shorthanded.

False. Not many people expected the Spurs to win Game 2 with Leonard watching on TV from a San Francisco hotel room, it's true. But can we be forgiven for expecting them to show up?

When Leonard got hurt Sunday, San Antonio led the Warriors by 23 points. In the almost-four quarters that followed that moment, Golden State outscored the Spurs 130-73. That included one of the most dramatic comebacks in NBA playoff history, followed by a horse race Tuesday night in which one of the horses burst out of the starting gate with ears pinned back while the other one stood there lazily munching on grass.

Game 2 was more or less over by halftime. Both coaches lowered the draw bridges for their reserves. James Michael McAdoo played nearly 11 minutes for the Warriors, and Damian Jones played 6½. Someone named Davis Bertans logged 17 minutes for San Antonio. Bryn Forbes clocked 23:06.

The Warriors refused to judge their opponents afterward, at least publicly. Stephen Curry was typical.

“No, I wouldn't say they came out flat,” he inisted. “We just tried to do things a little differently on the defensive end to try to make it tough on them. … They didn't come out and lay down at all.”

Then why were all those yoga mats and pillows spread on the court near the Spurs' bench?

Popovich, generally the most outspoken coach in the universe, was far less charitable. After the game, I asked him if he had concerns about his team's intensity. After praising Sonoma County wines - Pop is a big wine guy - he laid the lumber to his players.

“I'm disappointed,” he said. “The only way I can process this is I think it's not about O's and X's or rebounds or turnovers or anything like that. I think we've maybe felt it too much, Kawhi being gone, in the sense that I don't think - as I watched, I don't think they believed. And you have to believe.”

Someone else asked Popovich whether this failure of belief was collective.

“You can't sugarcoat it, or, ‘If we had just made a couple shots, we would have been right there,'” he said. “That's pretty lame. So call it like it is, and we didn't come to play. We felt sorry for ourselves, we need to get slapped and come back and play Game 3 and see who we are.”

But if the Spurs were wallowing in Leonard's injury, it was Popovich who applied the first layer of self-pity. After his team practiced Monday, the coach launched into a two-minute tirade against Pachulia's “dangerous” and “unsportsmanlike” play.

“We've had a pretty damn good season, we've played fairly well in the playoffs. I think we're getting better, and we're up 23 points in the third quarter against Golden State and Kawhi goes down, like that,” Popovich said that day. “And you want to know if our chances are less, and you want to know how we feel? That's how we feel.”

Translation: “We're screwed.”

The Spurs apparently took the message to heart. They had played without Leonard in Game 6 of their previous series, at Houston, and destroyed the Rockets 114-75. And they were 7-1 without Leonard during the regular season. Remember, we're talking about the team that posted the second best record in the NBA this season. They were 61-21, midway between the No. 1 Warriors and No. 3 Rockets.

They should have been competitive against Golden State, with or without Leonard. They weren't.

I know, I'm devoting an awful lot of ink to the Spurs rather than our local heroes. But this result was meaningful for both teams.

As the Warriors won back-to-back Western Conference titles in 2015 and 2016, there was always a whisper in the left speaker. It said Golden State was lucky it didn't have to play the Spurs during either playoff run. San Antonio, with its size, unflappability and methodical pace, was the one team in the West that could slow down the Warriors and expose their occasional recklessness.

And remember, Popovich was the mentor of Golden State coach Steve Kerr, the master to Kerr's grasshopper. And Mike Brown, who has stepped in for Kerr during the latter's recovery from a spinal-fluid leak? He worked under Popovich last year.

The Spurs might not be able to match the Warriors' talent, but Pop would find a way to level the playing field.

Now the truth is apparent. Leonard might return for Game 3, and the atmosphere in San Antonio will be a much different challenge for the Warriors. But the Spurs Mystique has been exposed as a bogeyman. The Warriors aren't intimidated, and the Spurs don't seem to believe it any longer themselves.

This series will be decided on basketball ability, and that bodes quite well for Curry and his teammates.

You can reach staff writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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