• Théo Salaun

Warriors in Six: Great Basketball Meets Better Basketball

The Golden State Warriors will finally be tested this Mother’s Day when they meet the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. As Golden State’s Supervillains returned to health and glided past Portland and Utah’s hobbled teams, the undermanned Spurs dismantled a deadly Houston Rockets squad and effectively extinguished one of the hottest offenses in NBA history (to the surprise of certain incredibly smart pundits). The Spurs gashed the Rockets by 39 points in a pivotal Game 6 — without Tony Parker (out eight months with a ruptured left quadriceps) or Kawhi Leonard (day-to-day with ankle soreness) — landing Houston in the history books for the fewest two-pointers made in NBA history (regular season or playoffs): nine. While the Warriors danced their way into the WCF, the Spurs re-established themselves as the NBA’s gold standard for team execution. Unparalleled synchronization typically means victory, even with a variety of overlooked talent (Summer League standouts like Jonathan Simmons, rookies like Dejounte Murray) and renown geezers (36-year-old Pau Gasol, 39-year-old Manu Ginobili) — but the Warriors are a unique beast. No Steve Kerr (out indefinitely with cerebrospinal fluid leak complications) should mean a drop in Golden State’s execution, but if they play at least close to their potential — which they should — then this series should be finished by Game 6 and the Cleveland three-match should be set.

Obliterating the Rockets without Parker or Leonard is pretty scary and shows that the Spurs win by working their, and breaking their opponent’s, system. Golden State should be harder to bottle up though; they do have three more stars, but the series could still be decided by rotational matchup jockeying. Both teams have the roster depth to pull from at least ten players. The Spurs are likely to continue starting Pau Gasol at center alongside LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Patty Mills, but they should have the flexibility to draw on Manu Ginobili, Jonathan Simmons, David Lee, Dewayne Dedmon, Kyle Anderson, and Dejounte Murray. The Warriors should keep starting Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Zaza Pachulia, but will work in Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Javale McGee, Ian Clark, David West, and, more sparingly, Patrick McCaw. The loss of Tony Parker is huge so the production out of rotation players ought to be series-defining. The Spurs are the only team since 2014 that the Warriors do not have a winning record against (per Tommy Beer), but the teams have rarely met each other at full strength so rotations should evolve as the series progresses and the coaches get a feel for matchups. The mental tug-of-war over lineups (both teams are flexible enough to go small or big) is deepened on-court as a grudge series for both Davids, with the two cerebral veterans, Lee and West, facing off against their former teams. Warriors interim Head Coach Mike Brown has already credited West as “really helpful” in planning (per Anthony Slater) for the series. Off-court, Golden State’s three key coaches have each spent time with the Spurs: Steve Kerr might not be courtside, but still communicates with the team between games and can draw on his three years of experience playing under Pop in San Antonio; while both Mike Brown and Ron Adams coached there, for three and two years respectively. San Antonio’s cohesion and adaptability should make them the biggest challenge the Warriors have faced all year, but Golden State’s talent should persevere if the team remains adaptable.

In Game 6, Houston’s 75 points were 40 below their season average and James Harden’s 10 was a fraction of his season’s average (more specifically: about one-third of his season’s 29.1 PPG). An outstanding accomplishment on its own is compounded by the absences of team leader Tony Parker and supposed life-force, Kawhi Leonard. San Antonio is the first 60-win team in NBA history to play 11 different players for at least 1,000 minutes each and that depth means this well-oiled machine has the requisite parts for any situation. In Houston’s case, the Spurs adapted their defense to contain James Harden and invite mid-range shots or floaters. Zach Lowe went into greater depth on the series, but essentially the roster worked to contest all takes at the rim (without risking fouls by reaching for blocks/steals) while limiting open threes and encouraging the bane of Daryl Morey’s existence: mid-range jumpers. On offense the Spurs exposed Houston’s lack of rim protection and Ryan Anderson’s defensive ineptitudes through a newly awakened LaMarcus Aldridge (34 points on 62% shooting), slashers like Jonathan Simmons (18 on 67% shooting), and a composed assault of pick-and-rolls and patient spacing. Gregg Popovich might be the greatest coach of all time and his staff, stacked with the likes of Ettore Messina and Becky Hammon, makes the most out of his and General Manager R.C. Buford’s carefully curated roster. The team is poised to identify and exploit the weaknesses of opposing team’s systems by shifting their roster and altering their gameplan. Given the absence of Steve Kerr and the relative youth of the team’s chemistry (seven players newly joined the Warriors this year), the Warriors are particularly vulnerable to in-game lineup shifts.

The series should be a match of strategy with both teams adjusting to match one another’s size or speed. The Warriors have the size to go to the post with Zaza Pachulia and David West or to the sky with JaVale McGee and the Spurs can match on land with LaMarcus Aldridge, David Lee, and Pau Gasol or in air with Dewayne Dedmon. Likewise, the Dubs can go small with Draymond Green and Kevin Durant manning the frontcourt while the Spurs can match with Kawhi Leonard at the four and either one of their finesse bigs (LA, D-Lee, or Pau) or their big athlete Dewayne Dedmon at the five. The Warriors have the tools to go a bit smaller than the Spurs but the Spurs have the pieces to go bigger. San Antonio’s size advantage should be felt all series and is key to wearing the Dubs down, especially with the principal small-ball matchups: Aldridge should be met by Draymond, who is four inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter; Kawhi should be met by Klay, who is about 20 pounds lighter; and Pau should be met by Durant, who is about the same height (despite being listed as four inches shorter) and 20 pounds lighter. The Spurs win games this series by wearing down the Warriors with their size, getting scoring output from their stars, and with mistake-free effort from their role players. But that shouldn’t be enough.

“I think I could beat Pop up. He’s like 70.” As reported by Anthony Slater, Mike Brown is not scared of his old buddy Gregg Popovich and his team should not be either. As much as the Spurs and their unerring execution dominated the Rockets, much of Houston’s failure was self-given. It’s easy to stick to a winning system when your opponent refuses to play more than seven players for real minutes and starts bickering amongst themselves. Gregg Popovich recognized that the Rockets weren’t themselves by the end of the series, and that can be attributed to a thin roster collapsing once their system was exposed and exploited. “Tonight was one of those nights where we’re not as good as we looked and they’re not the team they were.” As Pop mentioned post-game, the Rockets lost the identity that won them games all season — and that can be attributed to San Antonio’s ability to frustrate opponents and Houston’s inability to adapt as well as issues with the fortitude of their chemistry. That same process: frustration > infighting > collapse needs to be actively avoided by the Warriors as young chemistry and Steve Kerr’s absence means greater susceptibility to mental wavering. The Rockets lost composure when forced to adapt and began turning the ball over, taking bad shots, and failing to communicate on defense. The Dubs will need to play on their toes, cognizant of and un-wavered by San Antonio’s system games, so that the team can adapt and overcome Popovich’s schemes. The Spurs will look to win on offense by patiently working their size and on defense by smothering Steph, KD, and Klay to encourage poor shots and difficult passes. Golden State’s budding chemistry was understandably off to a shaky start this year with disputes over sharing the ball between ball-dominant players like KD and Steph, reaching a boiling point when Draymond yelled at Durant for taking a shot he preferred Steph to have. While those issues seem to have been ironed out, the vulnerability remains and Durant missing 20 games to injury doesn’t help. The Spurs can win games this series if they are able to frustrate Golden State enough for the team’s offense to lose its flow with Durant and Curry taking shots they normally shouldn’t, but if the players remain focused and trust the staff’s adjustments then the Dubs should take the series with ease. The Warriors stars are too talented and the bench is both gifted and flexible enough to outdo San Antonio’s, especially without Tony Parker and with the possibility that Kawhi isn’t 100%. Kawhi and Danny Green can only guard two-fourths of Golden State’s stars so they’ll need great team defense to help when Patty Mills and LaMarcus Aldridge get cooked. In Ron Adams we trust: the Warriors should be able to buckle down on defense while they adapt their offense to expose matchups. Defense, composure, and production from the season’s biggest producers is how Golden State gets to Cleveland.

While LeBron’s army proceeds to sweep, maybe even mop up, their poor foes in the East, the West should give us the best series of the playoffs so far. The Spurs are smart and crafty enough to win a couple games even without Tony Parker or a fully healthy Kawhi, but the Warriors are no Rockets and their staff and team leaders — even sans Steve Kerr — should be able to lock the boys in on defense while adapting to Popovich’s frustrating tactics. The team is too stacked. The Spurs play great basketball and the Warriors do too, but with more talented players. And that’s how good basketball becomes better basketball. There’s a reason they led the league in field-goal percentage, assists, steals, blocks, and points. We might see some drama and argument over Durant’s iso plays or some bad blood over San Antonio’s heavy-set physicality, but in the end talent should shine through and the Warriors should finish the series early enough to cut LeBron’s vacation short. Then we’ll find out if better basketball or the King’s basketball is the best basketball.

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