Everyone you ever trusted with setting probabilities is predicting the Spurs are going to lose the first game and the series.
The Warriors are 3-1 favorites to win the NBA Title, and that means taking on the presumptive Cavalier squad with the best player in the NBA. They are stacked and the weaknesses that helped fell them last season are erased and strengthened. Curry? Healthy. Draymond? Under control. Harrison Barnes? Upgraded to Kevin Durant.
Against both the Thunder and the Cavs, the physicality of the playoffs (read: refs allowing more contact) allowed teams to beat up on Steph Curry and made it difficult for the offense to have the same flow. Enter Kevin Durant, contender for best one-on-one player in the game. He is a 6’11” ball handling shooter who likes to get to the rim. He spent the last decade bailing out the most simplistic offense in the league with hero ball. Now he gets to bail out the best offense of the last half-decade with the same.
The Spurs held the Rockets to their three lowest point totals of the season and still managed to lose twice by 20+ points, including the game one destruction. Over the last three years the Spurs have had some success slowing the Warriors. In 2015, the Spurs beat the Dubs twice in the regular season. Last year in the 73-win season the Spurs gave the Dubs one of their nine losses. This season SA won two-of-three.
Those regular season battles mean little aside from some indication that the Spurs are not overwhelmed by the best the NBA has to offer.
If you want to look at this past regular season for some solace, look at five quarters — the first game where Jonathan Simmons had himself 20 points, and the first quarter of the March 29 meet up.
The other game was held between two sets of C-squads, and will not be indicative of what we will see this week 1. The Dubs have fully integrated Kevin Durant, which makes the first game a bit irrelevant as Curry and company were more focused on integrating him than anything. Steph is back to his old form and that means he is comfortable looking for his shot. Durant serves as yet another non-standard ball handling force that can attack the rim, shoot, pass, and also be a rim protector. In the very brief moments where Klay and the shooters went cold, KD was there to provide offense.
Spurs Need Offense
The Spurs are saying that the Rockets helped them prepare for this GSW challenge more than the Grizzlies prepared them for the Rockets.
That’s true defensively, but neither of the teams prepared them for the difficulty scoring they will encounter next round. Over the last two years the Spurs have been able to control the pace but have had trouble scoring against the length and versatility they bring.
Kevin Durant not only scored against Kawhi last year, he also defended well. Kawhi will be better on Sunday and will face his toughest set of defenders yet. Memphis had a 39-year old and rookies for him and he lit them up for six games. Trevor Ariza was more of a challenge but Kawhi still managed good-to-great outings before going out with injury.
The Dubs will throw Klay, KD, and Igoudala, and occasionally Green on him. They are all rangy 6’7″+ with length and two of whom are defensive specialists. Kawhi is great, but the will have trouble and will not find it as easy as he has the last two rounds.
Ryan Anderson did a frustratingly good job on LaMarcus Aldridge through the first round, and it was only until James Harden tried to defend the Spurs’ big man that #12 found his rhythm. Draymond Green is a much better defender than anyone the Rockets have or had at any of their big man spots. LMA has had decent success against the Warriors especially when he gets out running. He is taller than Draymond and so can get shots over him pretty easily. Of course, this is when he is the good LMA.
Here he is at his best against two quality defenders in last season’s playoff game 2 2
That LaMarcus Aldridge will give the Warriors trouble and make it easier on everyone, including Kawhi Leonard. Of course, this is what the Spurs had in mind when they signed him. They did not anticipate the 4-point games that go along with the 34-pointers also.
The rest of the Spurs cannot have an off night. The throughline between the five quarters of good basketball was shooting. In the March game, the Spurs huge first quarter lead came because Patty and Danny Green were on fire. It did not matter later as Kawhi had a bad game (7/20 and 5 turnovers) while the Warriors unleashed 67 points (to the Spurs’ 44) in the second and third quarters. The 37 in the second has been the Dubs’ calling card in these playoffs.
While the Spurs will not be a sieve all series like Portland was in Golden State’s first round series, they are not perfect and the Rockets were able to score freely at times. Much has been made of the Spurs’ defensive rating (a smidge higher than the Warriors for first place) but the Jazz had the third best in the league and got smoked in four straight games. The Spurs are more talented offensively and the Jazz had some injuries that slowed them but still, the Dubs were not really tested in that series.
The Jazz played games one and three at their pace (91.6 possessions per 48 minutes on the season, 1 & 3 averaged about 91.5) and still dropped both by double figures.
The Spurs will need to play at their pace (about 94 possessions per) and shoot well to win. In that way, they will be doing what they did against the Rockets.
It is unsurprising that the Spurs-Rockets series was played at about 93 possessions per game. You can surmise the winner based on the pace alone. Rockets’ wins in games one and four averaged 100, while the Spurs’ wins included comparatively glacial 87 (game three! in which they had 121) and 89 marks.
How Do The Spurs Win?
A game? Yes, it is that serious.
The Warriors have very few weaknesses, and they are usually self-inflicted.
1. Draymond Green Self Destructs
If Draymond goes crazy, he takes away their own best all-around defender an one of their better playmakers. He gifted Game 5 of the 2016 Finals by punching/kicking yet another groin. He has been calm and composed these playoffs but that is also because the Dubs have yet to be challenged. The kind of frustration that comes with a solid defense not letting the Warriors’ offense flow and the ball sticking with Durant for too long could be the right spark.
Golden State are also prone to carelessness brought on by … arrogance … boredom? Much like James Harden helped the Spurs with some careless passes late in game five and early in game six, the Warriors do throw the ball away.
|8||Golden State Warriors*||67||15||115.6||104.0||99.8||.597||.563||13.2||.485||13.5||74.9||.198|
|17||San Antonio Spurs*||61||21||111.1||103.5||94.2||.564||.524||12.6||.492||13.5||77.6||.192|
The season numbers do not tell you much. Turnovers happen in the intensity of the playoffs, but the Warriors will help SA out with some lazy passes. Steph will try something risky, or Draymond will be loose with the ball. It happens.
3. Kawhi & Aldridge
Kawhi will have to play much better than he has historically against the Warriors. I already mentioned the challenge in front of him in going against a barrage of quality defenders on a good defensive team. He has the ability, and all he needs is a little luck. He gave the Warriors 35 in the season opener, after all.
The Spurs will need 35-8-5-5 from their best guy. Aldridge will need 20-10. The attention created by those two will create the kinds of shots that Danny and Patty can thrive with. As with the Rockets, Golden State will run on misses and get those back-breaking transition threes. We saw Danny Green get roasted in the open court by Lou Williams and Eric Gordon. Now imagine Kevin Durant flanked by Klay Thompson and Steph Curry. They cannot run (so easily) while taking the ball out of the net.
Aldridge will likely have a frustrating game or two, but if the Spurs are going to win (one game) it will be because he is taking advantage of Draymond Green’s height, Zaza’s lack of foot speed, and Javale McGee’s impatience.
4. Everyone Get Hot
This, of course, is so simplistic that it almost is ridiculous to type. It is a key, however. In the Spurs’ best games against the Warriors the other guys shot really well. Danny Green, and Patty Mills are most dangerous when they take pressure off Kawhi with their own transition buckets. The Spurs will need more than those two. They will need Jonathan Simmons to continue to make what-the-hell threes. In the opener, he hit a couple wide-open looks and that buzzer-beater. Against Houston he had similar buckets.
We know J-Simms can get hustle-buckets, but the Warriors will let him take those stand-still looks from distances. They can win if he is drilling those.
Tony will be missed for many reasons, but one of which is his decent shooting touch from the corner spots. Patty is much more dangerous, but Dejounte Murray is not. Murray has no fear and will attack the bucket off swing, but we are trading two for three in that situation.
As much as I believe in the power of Pop and the Spurs Way, I also am realist. The Spurs Way could not overcome the Thunder playing to their potential last season. It could not overcome Chris Paul in game seven the year prior. It could not overcome LeBron in 2013. For portions of the mid-2000s it could not overcome Kobe & Shaq.
This game is simple — put the ball in the basket — and the Golden State Warriors have three of the game’s best talents at doing that very thing, with a staff that is near the equal of the Spurs’ own. They also have more good-to-great defenders than do the Spurs. Oh, and home court advantage.
The Cavaliers were able to overcome last year’s historically great GS team because they had the game’s very best player, but still needed to come back from down 3-1 and catch more than a few breaks. He also had loads of help from a locked-in Kyrie Irving.
These Warriors are approaching the best of that Warriors team, are healthier, and vastly more talented along the front five.
Kawhi may very well be the game’s 2nd-best player, but he is not (yet) the playmaker that LeBron is, nor is Aldridge the dynamic scoring equivalent of Kyrie Irving. The Spurs also come in the more injured team.
Against Houston the Spurs had scoring droughts the likes of which Golden State will feast upon. That run in game five in which SA missed 11-straight? Houston failed to take advantage. James Harden no-shows in game six? The Warriors are not a one-man team. They can absorb a no-show game from a star. Last year Klay Thompson carried the squad while injuries nagged at Curry throughout.
If Houston was a good tune-up for Golden State, the Jazz were a good one for the Spurs. The Warriors were not flummoxed by the motion offense, nor were they seriously slowed by the length and smart defense the Jazz brought. Meanwhile, the Spurs had to reach deep down deep to win and came out the other end banged up.
The Spurs are better than the Jazz and there is too much savvy on the team to not challenge the Warriors more than Portland or Utah did, but I cannot see the Spurs getting more than one game out of this.
Warriors in five.
(I hope I am absolutely wrong.)
- I say this fully aware that the Spurs just destroyed Houston without Tony and Kawhi. That loss had more to do with Harden and the Rockets laying an egg than the Spurs’ abilities. Although every Spur was locked in. ↩
- Again, I do not know how the Spurs stayed in that game, nor how they lost. Patty probably should have pump-faked Adams and got a clean look. Danny Green probably should have thrown a better pass before that. Patty probably could have pulled it out and gave it to Kawhi as the trailer. So much happened after Dion Waiters fouled Ginobili. ↩