Western Conference Finals: Golden State Warriors (1) vs. San Antonio Spurs (2)
How they got here: The Warriors have had seemingly easy run to the finals. They swept the Portland Trail Blazers without Kevin Durant for two games and then swept a Utah Jazz team that many thought would cause them more of a challenge than they ultimately were able to.
The Warriors are absolutely stacked though. They are a juggernaut with the two men who won the last three MVP awards in Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. Draymond Green has been playing excellent basketball throughout the playoffs including a triple double in the close out game against the Jazz. Golden State has been as dominant as we all feared they would be when they added Durant and nothing seems to be standing in their way.
The Spurs won an exciting six game series with the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round before taking on a Houston Rockets team that many felt were going to use San Antonio as a stepping stone into the upper echelon of the NBA. Instead, it was the Spurs who emerged victorious after a six game series that saw them blow out the Rockets without MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard on the strength of excellent performances by Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Patty Mills, Jonathan Simmons, DeJounte Murray and really everyone Gregg Popovich deployed that night. But victory came at a price as they lost Tony Parker for the season with a torn quadriceps.
Many have maligned the NBA playoffs thus far largely because of the way that Golden State has breezed to the Conference finals, but they face a much more significant challenge in the San Antonio Spurs.
How the Spurs can win: The key for San Antonio is going to be Kawhi Leonard’s health. Even though the Spurs blew out the Rockets in game six of that series without the MVP candidate, the Warriors are an entirely different type of team and Leonard will be needed for his defensive prowess as much as for his excellent scoring.
Leonard has been incredible all playoffs, he’s averaged 27.8 points on 52.4% shooting including 47.1% from three point range. He’s also chipped in 7.7 boards, 4.7 dimes and 1.7 steals and leads the NBA in player efficiency rating for the playoffs at a whopping 32.3 while being first in offensive wins shares and second in defensive win shares (behind the Warriors’ Draymond Green). Leonard has been the MVP of these playoffs thus far and the Spurs are going to need him to take his game even higher if they are going to have any chance against the Warriors.
Another key for San Antonio will be to control the boards. Their ability to out-rebound the Grizzlies and Rockets made a huge difference in those series and ultimately helped paved the way for them to emerge victorious. Particularly against the Rockets, who even went they went small, Pop deployed Aldridge and Gasol and fed them the rock down low to do damage and also try to disrupt Clint Capela on the other end.
They will need to deploy a similar strategy against the Warriors who definitely give up an edge to the Spurs inside. If Gasol and Aldridge can maintain their high level of play from the Rockets series, they should be able to count on a lot of offense in the interior as well as chances generated if the Spurs can control the glass.
Aldridge scared a lot of fans with his uneven play in the Memphis series followed by an absolute dud in game one of the Rockets series that saw him put up 4 points and 6 rebounds and cause many to wonder if he was on the verge of falling off the Roy Hibbert cliff. He bounced back quite well though including a 34 point, 12 rebound close out game six. The Spurs are going to need Aldridge to continue that level of play against the Warriors and be able to reliably feed him down low in order to win this series.
On the other end, the San Antonio bigs are going to need to disrupt JaVale McGee. Once a punch-line on Shaqtin’ A Fool, McGee has become a useful rotational player for Golden State and probably their most physical interior presence. The Spurs need to prevent him from getting going and watch those high passes and force him into mismatches when he’s on the floor.
Steph Curry has to be the main focus of the defense. Even with the addition of Durant, Curry is still the man on this Warriors squad. He’s leading the team in scoring with 27.1 PPG and he is still dictating the pace of the team. When Curry is on the floor, Golden State has a historically high net rating of plus-25.1 to a shockingly low minus-4.3. The Warriors are 16.2 points per 100 possessions better with Curry on the floor than without. If he gets going, the Spurs have no chance.
The Spurs absolutely need to shut Curry down. Patty Mills and Danny Green will spent a lot of time on him, but Pop undoubtedly won’t be afraid to switch Kawhi Leonard or Jonathan Simmons on to him at times as well. Anything and everything must be done to disrupt his flow and keep him off his game if the Spurs are going to win this series.
Every single rotational player is going to need to be at their best. Manu Ginobli had an incredible game five resurgence against the Rockets, he will need to be at the height of his powers. Patty Mills is going to continue to be counted on to play big minutes and draw tough defensive assignments with Curry or Klay Thompson as well as hit his threes. Ditto for Danny Green. Jonathan Simmons emerged in game six vs. Houston as an incredible force on both sides of the ball. He’s going to need to find an even higher gear against Golden State. Rookie Dejounte Murray showed incredible poise when matched up against James Harden and Patrick Beverly, he will need to do the same against the Splash Brothers.
They are going to need to make the Warriors play a far slower place and prevent them from breaking out in transition. Through the season, Golden State played at the third fastest rate, while the Spurs played at the fourth slowest. San Antonio is going to have to set the pace by setting their offense methodically and moving the ball around to maximize each possession. They absolutely need to control the glass and prevent run-outs on the other end. Golden State averaged a league best 22.6 points off the fast break during the season, the Spurs have to prevent them from getting the jump in transition.
The Spurs have depth who often seem capable of performing well above what we think their talent level is. That comes to one man and the Spurs biggest weapon in this series: Gregg Popovich. Pop is the best coach in the NBA. Maybe ever. He proved it again in that Houston series by winning huge without Tony Parker and without Kawhi in the close-out game. If anyone can come with an answer to the seemingly unsolvable problem of the Warriors, it’s Pop. He will come up with match-ups and schemes that will slow them down work against them in small line-ups.
The question will become how will the Warriors respond. With Mike Brown in the place of Steve Kerr, the adjustments perhaps won’t come fast enough and the Spurs can pull off the upset.
How the Warriors can win: In the last round, I outlined all the ways that Utah could beat the Warriors. They literally did every one of them. But I also pointed out that even if they did it may not matter because the margin of error is zero against Golden State and they can beat you in so many ways. In the end, Utah got swept in spite of playing the Warriors really well.
San Antonio is a better team than Utah, but can still meet the same fate. Even with the best mind in basketball leading the way.
The Warriors just have so many weapons. Klay Thompson can get hot and easily single-handedly put you in a deficit. Draymond Green has been absolutely outstanding these playoffs. He’s leading the Warriors in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Green has continued his defensive player level of the year play and will absolutely wreak havoc on the Spurs offensive sets at times. Andre Iguodala remains a force off the bench on both sides of the floor and Curry and Durant are two of the five best players in the game today.
Any one of those guys can take over a game single-handedly. Durant did it against the Jazz in game three. Jawing at the Utah crowds, swearing at the Jazz mascot and sporting a somewhat uncharacteristic scowl as he torched the Jazz for 38 points and 13 rebounds in the biggest heel turn since Hulk Hogan joined the nWo.
The Warriors seem to relish the villain role. Their smirks as they run up the score definitely tell that tale. Curry chewing on mouth guard while nonchalantly draining threes has become a sight that enrages many fan bases, but once he gets going there is little you can do to stop him. There’s a reason he won two MVP awards in a row and he continues to show it night and night out for the Warriors. When Curry is on the floor, they are an all-time great offensive and one that might be truly unstoppable.
The Spurs can do everything perfectly and still come up short. Ultimately that is how Golden State can win any series.
The Warriors key victory every time is their ability to create the unsolvable math problem for other teams. How do you win when you’re responding to threes with twos?
What will happen: I definitely don’t think the Warriors are sweeping the Spurs. After watching San Antonio close out the Rockets without Tony Parker or Kawhi Leonard, I think they will definitely be in this series and they will not quit.
San Antonio can and will disrupt the Warriors the offense. They will slow down the pace and make them pay on the boards.
Ultimately though, it won’t be enough. Even in shutting down Houston’s high powered offense, they had to give up a lot of shots that while the Rockets didn’t make them, Golden State will. If they succeed in disrupting Curry, I don’t know what the answer to Durant will be as he’s historically come up big against San Antonio whenever they’ve matched up including when he lead the Thunder to a second round victory over the Spurs last season.
The Warriors are finally going to face more of a challenge than we’ve seen thus far in the playoffs but they ultimately have far too many weapons even for the Spurs excellent defense. On the other end, the Spurs offense – even with the incredible Kawhi Leonard – can’t match the Golden State juggernaut.
The most telling stat of all is this: San Antonio is 7-0 when they hold opponents under 100 points this postseason. They are 1-4 when they don’t. Golden State has been held under 105 points once so far in the playoffs.
Prediction: Warriors in six.