Through the turmoil of losing Tony Parker for the playoffs in the last round and then Kawhi Leonard suffering an injury that kept him out of overtime in Game 5 and all of Game 6, the Spurs have reached the Western Conference Finals, where they’re heavy underdogs to the Golden State Warriors.
Western Conference finals schedule
Game 1: Sunday, 2:30 p.m., Oakland, Calif.
Game 2: Tuesday, 8 p.m., Oakland
Game 3: Saturday, May 20, 8 p.m., AT&T Center
Game 4: Monday, May 22, 8 p.m., AT&T Center
*Game 5: Wednesday, May 24, 8 p.m., Oakland
*Game 6: Friday, May 26, 8 p.m., AT&T Center
*Game 7: Sunday, May 28, 8 p.m., Oakland
To hear the pundits tell it, the defenders of the Alamo faced better odds than the Spurs do against the talent-laden Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals.
But who could argue that the Warriors, who have yet to lose in the postseason, shouldn’t be heavy favorites when the series begins at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in Oakland, Calif.?
After all, Golden State has won 23 of its last 24 games, counting the regular season. The Warriors have started out 8-0 in the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, beating opponents by an average of 16.5 points.
Golden State is led by four of the best players in the NBA – Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
That the Spurs, even with all their championship pedigree and tradition, are such decisive underdogs speaks volumes about the powerhouse the Warriors have become.
“It makes complete sense for them to be the favorites,” veteran Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said Saturday after practice. “They had an unbelievable season, even with Durant out for 20-something games. They beat us the last game pretty easily without him, so I understand why they might be favorites."
“We’re just going to go out there, compete and try to play our best series. Anything can happen in a playoff series. But for anything to happen, we’ve got to play our best basketball possible.”
The Warriors have been dominant over the last three regular seasons, going 207-39. But here’s something that should make Spurs fans feel more optimistic: Golden State is only 5-5 against the Silver and Black during that span.
The Spurs head into the West finals with plenty of momentum themselves after dismantling the Houston Rockets by 39 points (114-75) on the road Thursday night, clinching the conference semifinal series in six games.
The Silver and Black won without Leonard, their leading scorer, who sat out Game 6 after spraining his ankle in San Antonio’s 110-107 overtime victory in Game 5 Tuesday night. The Spurs already were shorthanded after veteran point guard Tony Parker ruptured a left quadriceps tendon in Game 2. Parker is out for the remainder of the postseason.
Leonard will play in the series opener against Golden State, Popovich said Saturday.
Golden State (67-15) and San Antonio (61-21) finished the regular season with the best records in the NBA. The Warriors won the league title in 2015, a year after the Spurs won their last championship, and lost to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in a Finals rematch last year.
As was the case against the Rockets in the conference semifinals, the series with the Warriors will feature a matchup of teams with contrasting styles. Golden State is at its best when it plays at a fast pace, while San Antonio thrives with a slower, deliberate offense.
Popovich poured cold water on the theory that the Spurs’ Game 6 victory against Houston could be a template for how to play against the Warriors.
“This is a totally different animal,” he said. “Every team is different. Every team poses different threats. Every team has great players, and this far into the playoffs, everybody is competitive and probably at the top of their game.”
Popovich drew chuckles from the media Saturday with his reply to a question about what his team’s defensive strategy would be against Golden State in the West finals.
“Pray,” he said.
Ginobili expounded on the challenge that lies ahead for the Spurs, who are making their 10th appearance in the conference finals since Popovich became their coach 18 games into the 1996-97 season.
“We are playing one of the best teams like almost ever, last year (73) wins, made it to the Finals, this year (67) whatever,” Ginobili said. “They are tough, and they added to that incredible offensive talent and good, solid defense. They have the whole package, and we’ve got to all perform and shoot well, and decide not to turn it over to have a chance of winning against Golden State.”
The Spurs went 2-1 against the Warriors in the regular season. San Antonio cruised to a 129-100 rout on the road in the season opener for both teams and won the second meeting 107-85 on March 11 at home.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr rested Curry, Thompson, Green and Andre Iguodala in the second game, and Durant was still sidelined with a knee injury. But the Spurs were shorthanded, too, missing Leonard (concussion protocol), LaMarcus Aldridge (medical), Parker (back stiffness) and Dajounte Murray (groin).
The season series ended with an 110-98 Warriors victory March 29 at the AT&T Center. All the starters for each team played except Durant, who was still out with the knee injury.
Curry and Thompson scored 29 and 23 points, respectively. The Warriors shot 51.2 percent overall (43/84) and were 50 percent (13/26) from the 3-point line. Curry and Thompson each nailed four 3-pointers.
Leonard led the Spurs with 19 points, but he missed 13 of 20 shots and went 0 for 5 from the 3-point line. Pau Gasol finished with 18 points, followed by Aldridge (17) and Danny Green (16). Green sank 4 of 8 shots from beyond the arc.
Former Spurs assistant coach Mike Brown has coached the Warriors since Kerr took a leave of absence three weeks ago to deal with pain related to back surgery in 2015. Kerr hasn’t coached the team since Game 2 of its first-round series against Portland.
Kerr played on two championship teams with the Spurs and Brown was an assistant under Popovich for three seasons (2000-03). Both are close friends of the San Antonio coach.
“Mikey has done a great job,” Popovich said. “Steve was really smart in hiring him. He (Brown) just has a presence about him. He has a confidence. I just enjoyed him when I got to know him. He’s got a great mind.
"He understands the game. He knows what it takes to win. He’s strong enough to make demands fairly and follow through, and he’s great with people. So what more could you ask?”