Gregg Popovich confirms Kawhi Leonard to play Game 1 vs. the Warriors

The San Antonio Spurs were saving Kawhi Leonard for Sunday. They just didn’t know whether they were saving the injured All-Star forward for Game 7 of their second-round series against the Houston Rockets or Game 1 of a Western Conference finals showdown with the Golden State Warriors.

Now they know, thanks to the Leonard-less Spurs’ dominating Game 6 victory against the Rockets.

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Nursing a twisted left ankle, Leonard could have played Thursday had it been an elimination game for San Antonio, but the Spurs held him out to rest the ankle for a potential win-or-go-home Game 7 on Sunday, according to ESPN.com’s Michael C. Wright.

On Saturday, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich confirmed that Leonard will play in Sunday afternoon’s Game 1 at Oracle Arena. Popovich said that his team’s superstar was “absolutely” a full participant in Saturday’s practice.

Thursday’s win afforded the two-time Defensive Player of the Year a full four days off after he injured the ankle late in Tuesday’s Game 5 overtime victory. Wright reported that the Spurs fully expected him to play in Game 1 against the Warriors, but Popovich’s confirmation at least makes it official.

Kawhi Leonard wanted to play on his sore left ankle on Thursday night. (AP)

The Spurs coach suggested that Leonard had not suffered a serious injury when he announced in full Popovichian form that the MVP candidate would not play hours before Game 6. “Kawhi’s out,” the coach said. “He’d rather play.”

In Leonard’s place, former D-League wing Jonathon Simmons earned the first playoff start of his young career and played the game of his life, scoring 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting and adding four assists while playing lockdown defense opposite Rockets star James Harden in Thursday’s 114-75 win.

Still, the Warriors are a different beast, and the Spurs need their most dangerous weapon. Leonard is one of the game’s most impactful two-way players, averaging 27 points, six rebounds and four assists in splitting a pair of games against the Warriors this season. San Antonio played and won a third game against Golden State sans Leonard, Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge in March, when each member of that trio was nursing an injury, but the Warriors also rested their four stars and lost by 22.

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Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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