Why even play the Western Conference finals?
The Golden State Warriors are destined to meet the Cleveland Cavaliers for a third consecutive time in the NBA Finals, right? They’re so dominant, so dangerous and so deep that the San Antonio Spurs ought to just stay home rather than lace ‘em up at Oracle Arena for Game 1 on Sunday afternoon.
Except for one thing: These are the cyborg Spurs.
Long before Kawhi Leonard came along, there was a long line of Spurs greats who always had what it took to win. No matter the opponent. No matter the odds. Their culture, their system and their coach was that great — is that great.
This series is no different. And nobody knows that better than these Warriors.
Steve Kerr may not be on the sidelines at the moment, but you’d better believe the ailing Warriors head coach who won two titles as a player with Gregg Popovich’s Spurs is sending this message to his players. His stand-in, former Spurs assistant Mike Brown, can offer an even more recent reminder of the danger posed by San Antonio. He spent much of last season working with Popovich and his staff before getting the call from Kerr last summer to come join the Warriors.
There’s this, too: Despite all the Warriors’ success, the 207-39 regular season record since 2014 and the consecutive Finals appearances and the one championship, they haven’t had to go through the Spurs in the playoffs during that time. San Antonio fell in the first round to the Clippers in 2015, then lost to Oklahoma City in the second round a year ago.
All of which is to say the Warriors had better be careful here. And here’s why.
The Pop Factor
Popovich would have the coaching edge no matter who he’s facing. As Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey put it just days before his squad was eliminated in the Western Conference semifinals, the Spurs are “arguably the best coached team ever.”
But the uniqueness of the Warriors’ coaching situation makes this matchup even more interesting. Brown knows Popovich’s playbook as well as anyone, and he has the wealth of head coaching experience gleaned from his time with LeBron James' Cavs and with the Los Angeles Lakers that led to his 9-6 record in postseason series.
And even though the Warriors don't know if Kerr will return in these playoffs as he recovers from the latest round of complications from his back surgery two summers ago, they have another thing going for them.
They are super smart.
This veteran group knows what to run and how to run it even when Kerr is on the sidelines. And Brown, by all accounts, has done a masterful job of fitting in rather than feeling compelled to put his stamp on the operation. And why not? There’s no shame in using the cruise control function if the road isn’t too bumpy.
Yet from Popovich on down, the Spurs are as smart as they come too. They somehow had the league’s top-rated defense (100.9 points allowed per 100 possessions; just ahead of the second-place Warriors) despite giving heavy minutes to players such as Tony Parker (whose season was ended with a quadriceps tendon tear in the last round), Manu Ginobili, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol who have never been considered strong individual defenders. They somehow beat the Rockets in Game 6 (and at the end of Game 5) despite their MVP candidate, Leonard, being sidelined with a left ankle injury. (He will play Sunday.) They somehow find a way to get the job done, or at least come close.
A big-time problem
In the Warriors’ dream world, their flock of wingmen run the Spurs big men off the floor and force Popovich to go with his small lineups that simply can’t keep up. But the Rockets series was a cautionary tale, a reminder that Popovich’s stubbornness usually pays off.
He swapped David Lee for Gasol in the starting lineup in Game 2, pairing him with Aldridge down low and forcing the Rockets into the kinds of mismatches that eventually wore them down. On one end, James Harden had to guard much bigger men because the Rockets stayed small. On the other, the length prevailed: Gasol (7-foot height; 7-4 wingspan) and Aldridge (6-11; 7-4 ¾) put a lid on the rim and relied on the Spurs’ long wing defenders to cover the shooters.
The Spurs’ length was key on the perimeter, too, with players such as Leonard (6-7 height; 7-3 wingspan), Danny Green (6-6; 6-10) Jonathon Simmons (6-6; 6-7 ½) and DeJounte Murray (6-foot-5, 6-9½) closing and contesting in the kind of way that limited the long-range damage. The Warriors have plenty of perimeter length of their own, but size down low is another matter for the team that spends most of its time with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala running the floor.
Center Zaza Pachulia (6-11) is starting, but he’s averaging just 14.1 minutes in the playoffs. Backup center JaVale McGee (7-foot) has been an X-factor of sorts because of his athleticism and ability to finish at the rim, and even boasts a team-high net rating of 37.3 in these playoffs, but he’s only averaging 11.4 postseason minutes per game. Veteran forward David West, who spent last season with San Antonio before signing with the Warriors last summer, could be called on even more (14.6 minutes per game thus far) if this becomes a battle of the bruisers.
The Spurs’ lone win against the Warriors this season, a 129-100 season-opening rout at Oracle Arena that marked the only time they faced Golden State with Durant, was the kind of formula they’d love to repeat, with 61 combined points for Leonard and Aldridge, a 55-35 rebounding edge and the Warriors hitting just seven of 33 three-pointers.
Will switches get stitches?
If NBA defenses were X-Men characters, the Warriors are Mystique. Minus the blue skin.
This is the special power earned when you build a roster full of long and athletic players, a gritty group with a chameleon quality that combats pick-and-rolls by switching defenders almost every time.
But even Mystique finds herself in a tough spot every so often, and that possibility is there in this series for the Warriors too. Popovich and his staff will be searching for switches that put the Warriors in a bind, like Leonard in the mid-post with anyone who doesn’t size up or Curry or Thompson being stuck down low against Gasol or Aldridge. Work the clock. Swing the ball. Find the weakness.
Popovich will try to find a way.