The Spurs will face the sixth seeded Golden State Warriors, who crowned their dream of a bounce back season (after last year's masterpiece of a tank job) by upsetting the Nuggets in the first round. Unlike the Lakers, the Warriors should be relatively healthy when the series starts, as David Lee was cleared to play against the Nuggets for game six and will likely be available, if likely hampered, on Monday. Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw are both questionable for the Spurs.
Let's first take a look at the season series and then analyze the game plan for both teams
Season series: Tied 2-2
The first game of the season series was played in San Antonio and the Spurs beat the Warriors 95-88. The Spurs were without Manu Ginobili while the Warriors were missing Curry and Bogut. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan were fantastic in this one, combining for 49 points 12 rebounds and ten assists. Lee and Thompson led the Warriors in scoring. The Warriors used Thompson on Parker and it worked for a while, but eventually Parker shredded the second year player.
The second game was a Spurs loss in overtime. You might remember this game as the one where Pop ran the exact same play at the end of overtime that he'd just run in the final possession of regulation. Or, it was the one where the Warriors played in their jammies. Or it's the one where Jarret Jack dropped 30 on the Spurs, including ten fourth quarter points and seven overtime points. Or the one where the Spurs could have won had Parker not missed a lay up in transition he would usually hit. Needless to say, it was an atypical game. Manu was clutch on this one but Jarret Jack and Curry were too much and the Dubs got the W.
The third game was played in San Antonio and the Spurs were without Parker but an inspired Duncan and a great defensive effort were enough to get the win. Curry and Lee were a combined 12-37 from the floor and Bogut and Thompson couldn't get going either. The Dubs were in it because Jack and Landry carried them from the bench but the dominance of the Spurs big man duo was just too much for them to overcome. Duncan went for 25, 13 and six with four blocks and Splitter pitched in 17, seven and four. Ginobili struggled from the floor but nailed a couple of clutch three pointers to put the Warriors away in the fourth.
The last game was three weeks ago, and the second to last game of the regular season. It was in Golden State and the Spurs rested Parker, Duncan and Leonard and were without Ginobili as well as the recently released Stephen Jackson. The Spurs scrubs kept it close for three quarters but the Warriors pulled away for the predictable win in the fourth.
What should the Spurs' defense look out for?
The Warriors are a jump-shooting team. Their star, Stephen Curry, is arguably the best shooter in the league right now and Klay Thomspson is a fantastic catch and shoot guy. Other key players, like David Lee, Carl Landry, Jarret Jack and Harrison Barnes all can hit from mid range or beyond. Of their top nine guys, only centers Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli lack an outside shot. The Warriors took the seventh most three pointers in the league this season and led the league in field goal percentage from there. They also like to shoot between 15 and 19 feet and are good at it. On the other hand, they struggle to get close to the rim (27th in shot attempts from less than five feet) and don't covert well when they do.
In their regular season games against Golden State, the Spurs did a great job limiting the Warriors three point attempts and shots at the rim but, as usual, struggled to contain mid-range jumpers. As a general strategy allowing those shots is smart but the Warriors can hit them, so that's definitely a concern. If the Spurs' late-season problem of preventing three pointers continues against the Warriors, and their ineptitude at contesting jumpers isn't curved, that alone could allow the Warriors to put enough points on the boards to keep games close despite lacking great interior scorers.
Even if Lee suits up, the Warriors will likely go small and run as much as possible, get open threes off screens, and pick and pop the Spurs to death -- if they can. Landry and Bogut can score with their back to the basket in a pinch but they are not major post up threats so don't expect the Dubs to throw the ball down low. Similarly, their guards are not particularly adept at getting to the rim and finishing in the half court and only David Lee, who might be too hurt to make a difference, is prolific and effective at finishing near the basket.
For the Spurs defense it will come down to getting back in transition, chasing guys off the three point line and at least providing a token effort when defending pick and pop jumpers. Curry and Lee (if healthy) will get theirs but if the Spurs contain two out of the group of Thompson, Jack and Barnes, then the Warriors' offense should sputter.
How can the Spurs hurt the Warriors?
As good as the Warriors are at shooting the three, they are awful at preventing it. They allowed the most three pointers in the league in the regular season, which pretty much negates the fact teams shoot a fairly low percentage (34.8%) against them. Where the Warriors excel defensively is at deterring shots near the rim, allowing the least amount of attempts in the league in the regular season. But in their season series the Spurs did a great job of getting to and finishing at the rim and the Warriors are also susceptible to shots from 5-9 feet, also known as tear drop territory.
The Dubs also have a couple of below-average defenders in their starting lineup in David Lee and Stephen Curry. Not coincidentally, Parker and Splitter had very good games against this team. Splitter averaged 13.5 points, seven boards and two assists and Parker, who was only available for the first two games, averaged 21.5 points 4 rebounds and 5.5 assists. Like I mentioned, Thompson spent time guarding Parker, which is likely to be the Warriors strategy for this series. But that creates some match-up problems for the Warriors when Parker and Ginobili play together because it would mean Curry has to take one of Manu or Leonard. Tough choices there for Mark Jackson.
I'm assuming Bogut and Ezeli will take Duncan. That leaves either Landry, Lee or a small forward at power forward. The Spurs should take advantage of the match-up by involving any of those guys on pick and roll situations and attacking them off the dribble. The Dubs struggle mightily stopping the ball handler in P&R situations so Bogut might be forced to over-help off his man to make up for it, which could create a lot of open jumpers for Duncan. If Bogut stays with Duncan to deny the jumper, Ginobili and Parker should be able to get to the rim with some ease and either finish on the undersized secondary defender or get the defense scrambling.
That's where the Spurs will need to have shooters hitting a high percentage of their three point shots. If Danny Green, Gary Neal, Matt Bonner and Kawhi Leonard can hit a high percentage of their spot up threes on a rotating Warriors D, things will open up inside and the series will be over quickly.
Who has the upper hand?
It seems to me the Spurs match up very well with the Warriors and the season series seems to prove it. Without an unlikely offensive explosion from Jack it might have gone 3-1 Spurs and that only loss would have come with the Warriors facing a starting lineup that included Bonner at small forward. The Warriors haven't won in San Antonio in 19 years, so home court advantage could be a huge factor.
Golden State's biggest strength seems to be their backcourt, which features deadly shooters in Curry and Thompson, and a solid third guard in Jack. But the Spurs might even have the upper hand there too, since Parker and Ginobili, perhaps the best backcourt of the last 15 years, seem to be healthy and Danny Green can provide some defense and shooting when called upon. Similarly, Barnes and Draymond Green make a solid SF combo but Kawhi Leonard is at the very least on their level.
Both teams will have important bigs hampered by injuries, but simply put -- the Spurs have Duncan and the Dubs don't. Bogut is a fantastic defensive player and Landry is productive and tough but the Spurs got very solid performances from DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner against a great Lakers front court. What might tip the scale is who is healthier between Lee and Splitter.
My prediction is Spurs in 5. What's yours?
For the opponent's perspective, visit Golden State of Mind but be a good guest if you do.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats and Hoopdata