The Spurs lost a heart-breaker Monday night that had us on the edge of our seats until, oh, 10:12 p.m. or so, and while it's tempting for your narrator to just post a picture of LaMarcus Aldridge next to that meme of Kermit drinking his tea, there is more nuance to Golden State 120, San Antonio 90.
It was a predictable outcome to be sure, though the margin was more outlandish than I figured. You wonder how much preparation Gregg Popovich and his coaching staff put into the game and whether the possible lack-thereof was by design. The Warriors have changed significantly since the last time these teams met, 295 days prior, both tactically and psychologically, and the Spurs sure didn't seem to account for those changes, to a troubling degree.
Draymond Green is their primary play-maker these days and the Dubs relish the 4-on-3 power-plays he gets at the top of the key when teams trap Stephen Curry. Green has a multitude of options in that situation. He can shoot, drive, drive and shovel to a fellow big when the opposing rim-protector rotates over to him or kick it out to either corner. Also, as we saw repeatedly Monday night, he can slice people to ribbons making perfect bounce passes for back-cuts.
Would Tim Duncan have made a difference and taken away a majority of those back-cuts? Undoubtedly. Not only is Duncan their best interior defender, but he's also the team's de-facto defensive coordinator on the floor, their best screener and their best passer among the starters. The problem against the Warriors is that had Duncan played and was proving to be an asset, then in all likelihood Kerr would've countered by going small, perhaps even to their notorious "Death-Ball" lineup of Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Barnes-Green.
There doesn't seem to be anyone for Duncan to guard in such a scenario and certainly we have plenty of evidence on hand of Gregg Popovich putting Duncan on the bench against smallish lineups hunting three-pointers, going back three seasons. And the current Duncan, 39, isn't as mobile and fluid as the 2013 version. The Warriors never resorted to Death-Ball or other similar lineups on Monday with Duncan out. They had Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli or at least Marreese Speights out there at all times.
The Warriors can also ping any one of Green's passes around until it comes back to a wide open Curry, which is, shall we say, problematic.
Let Manu Ginobili explain the Curry dilemma more eloquently than I can:
"He's close to unguardable. When there's a player playing like that, shooting like that, handling the ball like that, and behind him there's not much then you can control him. But when you have to blitz or be aggressive on him, and then you have all the type of players they have ... it's not that he's shooting 45 [percent from three] and the other ones are shooting 28. They're shooting, 37, 38, 39, 40, 45. So it's a whole team. Of course it goes around him but behind him are a ton of players that are doing great."
Indeed the Warriors already have eight guys who've made at least 20 threes and the worst percentage among those eight belongs to Leandro Barbosa at 37.0. The eight are averaging 42.8 percent from downtown between them. The Spurs have four such guys, and they're shooting 38.7 percent among them. The Dubs make on average about six more threes a night than the Spurs do and that just happened to be the case on Monday as well.
Both coaches left something "for the swim back," as it were, but I still feel the game was far more important for the Warriors. They were at home and had to show to themselves that the Spurs aren't in their heads, that they don't hold some mystical power over them. They wanted it more, and that's fine. It doesn't explain away 120-90, but it's fine.
The Spurs played uncharacteristically in a number of ways. Many of their 26 turnovers were preventable. Instead of moving the ball around and looking for the best shot, they tried to dribble into crowds, or crossover their way past defenders time and again. There are only three or four above-average dribblers on the roster and all of a sudden practically everyone on the team was trying their Kyrie Irving impression while multiple Warriors defenders got to impersonate Kawhi Leonard and pluck balls away.
Moreover, they didn't play at their preferred tempo. Possessions whizzed by too fast, back and forth, often in haphazard fashion with turnovers for both sides, like some rookie-sophomore game. Not enough effort was made to get the ball to Leonard or Aldridge. Leonard wound up taking just six shots in 25 minutes, which was bizarre. The Warriors kept getting bodies and hands in their way and the Spurs had no counter, no matter what they tried. The effort level of the players ran the gamut, but no one, not one rotation player, played well.
I think that stuff is mostly a fluke. The Spurs will be sharper next time around, less affected by nerves, and more prepared all around. They'll get good performances at least from some players because good players are good players for a reason. Things regress to the mean.
As I see it the two main problems (aside from the viability of Duncan in this match-up) are Aldridge and Tony Parker. With the former, we have yet to see any evidence --in a Spurs jersey, anyway-- that he can raise his game to the standard of elite competition. I'm not trying to offer a "hot take" here, believe me, but it was alarming how shook San Antonio's pricey free agent acquisition looked in the so-called biggest regular season game ever.
Take a glance at Aldridge's game log. Look at the games against the top teams in each conference.
11 points on 4-of-12 shooting, 5 rebounds and a -7 in 32 minutes in a loss at Oklahoma City.
13 points and 6 boards in each of the two wins over the Hawks, on 11-of-24 shooting combined.
13 points on 4-of-10 with 7 rebounds and a team-worst -15 in 34 minutes in a loss at Toronto.
6 points on 2-of-7 with 8 rebounds and a team-worst -7 in 29 minutes in the win over Cleveland.
5 points on 2-of-9 with 3 rebounds and a team-worst -20 in 25 against the Dubs.
Those are the numbers. Those are the facts. That works out to 10.2 points (on 37.0 percent shooting) and 5.8 rebounds in those six games. He's averaging 16.5 points (on 49.7 percent shooting) and 9.2 rebounds against everyone else. It should be noted that Aldridge has had strong showings against the Clippers and at Chicago, but I'm hardly the only one who's noticed LMA's shortcomings and tentativeness. Buck Harvey of the Express-News had a strong column on it Tuesday morning. For comparison's sake, David West hasn't lacked for competitiveness or aggression with his new team. Heck, neither has Jonathon Simmons for that matter. Neither have the pressure on them that Aldridge does of course, but I think it's fair to assume that the Spurs expected more for their investment and that Aldridge expects more as well.
Then there's Parker, who may simply be unplayable against the Warriors, except for maybe a handful of minutes where Curry sits. Who is there to hide him on in the starting lineup? Do you risk putting him on Barnes and dare the Warriors to post him up repeatedly? It could be that Parker was still feeling the effects of a sore hip that's kept him out of a few games, but he looked sluggish against the supercharged Warriors, particularly in transition. Patty Mills gave Curry a bit more difficulty, pressing him the length of the court and sticking close around screens.
The game was more of a fact-finding mission than anything and the Spurs certainly got an up-close look at last at just how powerful the Warriors are, even without their best lineup. San Antonio did some interesting things of their own, experimenting with different units, and I was particularly intrigued by a no point guard lineup with Aldridge and four wings. I think that one has legs. Make no mistake, Pop was doing some different things out there, such as sitting Leonard while Curry was still on the floor in the first quarter. He doesn't usually do that against the Kevin Durants and LeBron Jameses of the world. I don't think Kyle Anderson or Rasual Butler will be seeing second quarter minutes in important games against those guys.
Still, even with the understanding that process matters more than results and that you want to peak in April, not January, the game was a disconcerting eye-opener of just how wide the chasm is between the Warriors and everyone else -- including the Spurs.