The San Antonio Spurs made a strong start to life adjusting without club legend Tim Duncan, reaching the Western Conference Finals, only to be defeated by the Golden State Warriors.
Duncan opted to retire at the end of the 2015-16, concluding his 19 years with the Spurs, which included five NBA titles and two MVP awards.
His absence could have had a dramatic effect on the team for the 2016-17 campaign, although head coach Gregg Popovich did ensure that his side retained experience with the re-signing of Manu Ginobili and the deal to bring Pau Gasol to San Antonio.
Kawhi Leonard picked up the mantle from Duncan as the Spurs’ leader on the court. He continued his rise as one of the NBA’s stars, earning his second All-Star and All-NBA First Team berths.
His performances throughout the campaign drove his team forward and put him into contention for MVP for the first time in his career.
However, Russell Westbrook won the award for his historic year for the Oklahoma City Thunder, although Leonard’s importance for the Spurs could not be understated.
The 26-year-old was dominant at both ends of the court and he even raised the standard of his displays in the playoffs.
In their opener against the Warriors his performance alone had Bay Area outfit on the back foot. However, turning point in that contest and the series was his ankle injury that ruled him out of action for the remaining three matches.
San Antonio will feel that they have unfinished business with Golden State and are assembling a quality roster – that could become even more formidable before the start of the next campaign.
Dominant From The Off
Credit: USA TODAY Sports
The Spurs made a statement in their opening game of the season, hammering the Warriors at Oracle Arena as Leonard dominated the court in a 129-100 win. He maintained that high level throughout the first month of the term, seeing off the Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans and Miami Heat.
San Antonio’s momentum was checked at the start of November. Three defeats in four against the Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers and the Houston Rockets knocked them off their early place. However, the response was emphatic as the club won their next eight matches, including back-to-back road victories over the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards.
December was the Spurs’ most imperious month of the campaign, winning 12 of their 14 contests. LaMarcus Aldridge got them off to a strong start to outduel the Wizards, while Leonard lit up the scoreboard to overcome the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Celtics.
Only the Chicago Bulls and the Clippers got the better of Popovich’s men over the course of the month, although both matches were extremely close. Aldridge raised the level of his game to close out 2016 to defeat the Bulls in their rematch, while the Spurs powered past the Phoenix Suns.
Jonathon Simmons rose to the occasion in their final game of the year, top-scoring in a triumph over the Portland Trail Blazers, leaving his side at 27-6.
Minor Blemishes Appear
The Spurs began 2017 with a defeat in a thrilling contest against the Atlanta Hawks. Aldridge battled well for his team, but Paul Millsap inflicted the overtime loss at Philips Arena. Three wins on the bounce restored their momentum, although sloppy performances against the Milwaukee Bucks and the Suns knocked them off their path.
Leonard enjoyed a dominant stretch of games, including 41-pointer rising to the occasion to defeat the Cavaliers in overtime. He then inspired a comfortable victory over Westbrook and the Thunder at the end of the month with a 36-point outing at AT&T Center.
The Spurs remained on their path to challenge the Warriors for the top seed in February, although without an injured Leonard they limped to a low-scoring loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. His return guided them through a tricky period of road fixtures with a 6-2 record to close out the month.
March began with a five-match winning streak, defeating the Rockets in the process to maintain their stranglehold of the Southwest Division. Quality victories over the Warriors and Cavaliers highlighted their ability to challenge for the Championship surging past the 50-win mark.
However, Golden State did get revenge towards the end of the month in a closely-fought contest. The Spurs notched back-to-back 60-win seasons for the first time in franchise history after defeating the Grizzlies, but they headed into the playoffs off the back off a three-game losing streak.
Leonard Injury Derails Campaign
Popovich’s men were handed a tough task against the Grizzlies in their first-round clash. They split their series during the regular season and the opening four games played to form with a 2-2 scoreline after both sides won their respective home matches.
The Spurs upped the ante in games five and six, with Leonard, Aldridge and Tony Parker finding their peak form. That set up a contest against the Rockets and the power of James Harden in the Conference Semi-Finals.
Trevor Ariza stunned San Antonio in the opening to deliver a crushing win, but Leonard and Aldridge led the response to guide their team into a 2-1 lead.
Harden had his moment in game four to level, but the defining moment came in game five as the Rockets had the opportunity to put the Spurs under pressure without Leonard.
They failed to put them away as Popovich’s men edged out the contest in overtime before Aldridge dominated in game six to secure the series.
San Antonio rocked the Warriors in the opener, holding a 20-point lead in the third quarter to all but secure game one. However, the game and the series was effectively ended when Leonard landed on Zaza Pachulia’s foot, injuring his ankle even further and halting his side’s momentum.
In his absence the Warriors led by Kevin Durant eroded the deficit and from that point on dominated the Conference Finals, sweeping the Spurs, on their way to a second Championship in three years.
Spurs Will Remain Challengers
With Leonard in their side and Popovich as their head coach, the Spurs will remain a threat to the Warriors in the Western Conference. Had the 26-year-old not suffered his injury the series could well have been a thriller, but the setback highlighted the importance of the forward to his side.
He will continue to be San Antonio’s leading man and was just beaten out for MVP last season. Therefore backing him at 8/19.00+8008.008.00-0.13 to notch the award next term with SunBets is a sound punt.
The Spurs have been linked with a trade move for Kyrie Irving. The point guard reportedly wants to leave the Cavaliers and has pinpointed San Antonio as his preferred destination to play alongside Leonard and Aldridge.
Parker is approaching the end of his career, with injuries beginning to mount, therefore Irving would be the perfect replacement and would provide a foil alongside Leonard to challenge the Warriors.
If that were to happen then Golden State’s stranglehold of the Western Conference would be put in severe jeopardy. However, it remains talk for now, and the player remains under contract in Cleveland for a further two years.
San Antonio have not been overly active thus far, but have locked down the future of Gasol, while they bolstered their offense by signing Rudy Gay. The 30-year-old has boasted decent statistics, although his last season was derailed by injury. Keeping their key men healthy will be crucial as they proved that they can match the Warriors on the court.
Their odds of 15/28.50+7507.507.50-0.13 with SportingBet to win the Western Conference should be taken along with their price of 12/113.00+120012.0012.00-0.08 with BetVictor to lift the NBA Championship due to the quality of Leonard and Popovich alone.
Eric has been a sports journalist for over 20 years and has travelled the world covering top sporting events for a number of publications. He also has a passion for betting and uses his in-depth knowledge of the sports world to pinpoint outstanding odds and value betting opportunities.
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