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The Spurs vs. Warriors saga moves into its third act

In winning their 33 straight at home against Golden State, LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spurs put the universe back in order. At least until their next meeting.

Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

My family and I were out shopping in Dallas this afternoon when I spotted a guy in a 2014 Spurs Championship t-shirt. The one they wore in the locker room after game 5. This guy was about my age, maybe a little younger. I happened to be wearing my shirt from BT with the 5 banners on it, so after I made eye contact, I pointed to it and said "Go Spurs!" After a moment, he smiled. We chatted a bit. His name was Jordan and he had moved to the DFW area from South Dakota. "Been a fan since the Twin Towers era," he said. We talked about '99, about Tim's career, about Kawhi, how fortunate we both felt to have followed the best franchise in sports for almost two decades. I told him I had playoff tickets to the first round this year, and he talked about how he had been at the game two years ago when Vince Carter hit the buzzer-beating three to put the Mavs up 2-1 roughly two months prior to his t-shirt getting minted.

Eventually, round 2 with Golden State came up. But it was in more of a perfunctory way, as if we had to talk about it because the game was that night. We quickly moved on from the subject, because what else is there to talk about? They have a world-beating offense with a really good defense. We have flyswatter defense and can score a few buckets on the other end. Unstoppable force, unmovable object. It's pretty basic: whoever does their thing the best will win.

On Saturday, as most expected, the Spurs won. Things had already set up nicely for S.A., with the Dubs flying in from North Texas after playing 5 games in 8 nights. Two of their top six players were down, and the rest had played 30+ minutes in an eventual blowout of the Mavs on Friday night. Had circumstances been more favorable toward the Warriors, the Spurs still probably would have won because any serial conflict usually favors the avengers. As the whole basketball-watching world knows, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard, and the rest of the Spurs were embarrassed by Golden State in late January. That it came in Oracle Arena - a venue in which the last 50 opponents have left vanquished - didn't really matter; San Antonio looked like an also-ran that night, and a Warriors repeat has been spoken of across NBA circles as fait accompli ever since.

So the Spurs wanted that one back, for starters. They were also eager to showcase the new Aldridge, a reformed Luddite who'd sworn off social media following that game - and left his opponents swearing in his wake ever since. In their first meeting, Aldridge scored 5 points and looked like an overpaid stiff. On Saturday night, he was the Spurs' unquestioned go-to man, decisive in the post, on point with his jump shot, and even willing to chase Steph Curry out past the 3-point line on defense. The result?


LaMarcus v Curry

But the Warriors were not without chips on their collective shoulders, despite the recent Dub drubbing in Oakland. If Golden State had managed to win at the AT&T Center for the first time ever in the regular season, without pivotman Andrew Bogut and sixth man Andre Igoudala, it would've put a bow on the 2015-16 season in the minds of most casual NBA observers, and given the already swaggering Doobies an insurmountable confidence. That they came as close as they did with Curry shooting 1-11 on threes and combining with Klay Thompson to score 4 points in the final frame might give them that lift anyway. Whenever a contest is as a close throughout as this game, confidence will accrue to both the victor and the vanquished. Quite simply, neither the Spurs nor the Warriors had anything to hang their heads about after this one. San Antonio's defense, particularly that of Tony Parker and Danny Green, was on another level of excellence in an already historic defensive season. The Warriors never got in rhythm, and their 79 points were less than any they'd scored in a game all season, and 2 less than they scored in the first half against Portland on March 11th. The grind-it-out slugfest is an old tune in S.A., but the band can still play it just as well as that newfangled run n' gun stuff. Besides, they tried that number in Oakland and fell flat on their faces.

While it wasn't pretty, this was a game both teams can walk away from with a semblance of satisfaction. The Spurs have a formula for making Steph's life difficult, and have found a LaMarcus Aldridge (and a Boris Diaw!) that should continue to give the Warriors problems, even when Bogut and Igoudala return. Kawhi has yet to put together a truly complete game against the Warriors this season, but last night he was quick to go into facilitator mode or attack the paint when his shot wasn't working or when the Warriors brought double-teams. The Kawhi-as-basketball-robot trope is well established at this point, but the fact is that he simply makes the right decision the vast majority of the time. Occasionally, a team like Golden State can be the Kasparov to his logic circuits, but Kawhi Leonard will never allow his opponents to hope for a mistake.

That's not to say he isn't fine with games like this one, when Aldridge can take some of the pressure and step into the 1a role, allowing Kawhi to move within the flow of the system rather than becoming the system. When Aldridge was with Portland, I never felt like the Spurs had much to fear from his nifty jump shots and Simmons Beautyrest defense. As exciting as it was having LaMarcus come to the San Antonio last summer, that lack of fear of him as an opponent was something of a nagging doubt. After the January game against Golden State, those doubts came screaming back to the forefront. Since then, Aldridge has been aggressive, chippy, and determined to rule the rim and the boards while still using his jumper as both a threat and a weapon. A year ago, the Spurs would have lost this game. This time, LaMarcus Aldridge was there to pick up the slack and yank the rope until the Warriors toppled into the mud.

That Aldridge and the Spurs were able to stifle the Warriors with defensive anchor Tim Duncan coming off the bench and playing only 8 minutes (none in the second half) is not only impressive, but an indicator that the guard has officially changed in San Antonio. We've gradually ceased to marvel at the Spurs finding success game-to-game when Duncan doesn't make a major offensive contribution; that the team can not only win, but smother the best offense in the league with Duncan barely playing at all, shows that the Spurs have truly and completely entered a new era.

So, here's where we stand. San Antonio beat Golden State for the 33rd consecutive time at home, yet the Warriors are still 3 games up in the Western Conference and on pace to set the league record for wins in a season. If I ever run into my friend Jordan in the future, I suspect again that we probably won't talk much about SA and the Dubs. At least not this game. As intense as it was, the Spurs did what they do better than the Warriors did what they do. So we win and the series is tied one one with two more to play in the next four weeks and potentially seven more in May.

Eventually this season, Spurs-Warriors games will really start meaning something. Just not yet.

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