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The Spurs’ path to victory over the Warriors

Coach Eli, PtR’s resident non-Spurs fan, examines whether there’s a way for San Antonio to prevail over Golden State.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like the San Antonio Spurs, no matter how many times they exceed expectations, return to being doubted nationally. After being underdogs to the Rockets, despite being the higher seed with home-court advantage, the Spurs won the series in six games, closing on the road with a 39-point victory without Kawhi Leonard. Although the Spurs got the basketball world’s attention with their improbable Game 6 win, the Warriors open as 10.5-point favorites in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals Sunday at Oracle Arena. Are the Warriors and Cavaliers on a collision course for a Finals Trilogy, or is there a path to victory for the Spurs? Here’s a look at how the Spurs match up on both ends:

How the Spurs Match Up Defensively

  • The Warriors start Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia. This will allow Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to stick with the lineup of Patty Mills, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol. To start, you could see these matchups:

Mills on Curry
Green on Thompson
Leonard on Durant
Aldridge on Green
Gasol on Pachulia

  • The Spurs match up well on paper with the Warriors starters, especially without Tony Parker. Gasol and Parker were the two players considered unplayable against the Warriors attack, but Gasol can hang with Pachulia, and Mills is a defensive upgrade who has the motor to chase Curry around.

Aldridge is a solid matchup for Green, and he was able to practice guarding multiple positions against the Rockets this past round. His work defending Trevor Ariza should have him somewhat prepared for defending a mobile player like Green. The two main differences is Green will put Aldridge in more pick and rolls than Ariza, and Green moves more, whereas the Rockets shooters tend to stay stationary when they are not directly involved in the play.

It will be interesting to see if Aldridge switches onto Curry and Durant, or if the Spurs zone up the pick and roll and momentarily leave Green open. Aldridge is just mobile enough to tread water in this matchup, but it’s definitely a place the Warriors will attack, so the Spurs need to be ready to adjust.

  • Gasol can ignore Pachulia and play back on pick and rolls like he did against James Harden and Clint Capela. The Spurs’ biggest defensive challenge from their bigs is deciding how they will guard Green, and lot of that comes down to how well Draymond is shooting from three.
  • The Spurs are well-equipped on the wings to defend the Warriors. Leonard and Green can take turns on Durant and Thompson. Durant will have his moments in isolation, he’s too tall and efficient to be stopped, but he doesn’t create the same havoc in the pick and roll game that Harden does. Leonard should be able to make him work hard, and in a tight game, there are worse scenarios than seeing if Durant can make a contested, fadeaway two under pressure over the outstretched arms of Leonard.
  • Both Leonard and Green are also capable of defending Curry. This gives the Spurs flexibility as Mills could chase Thompson, or the Spurs can bring in Jonathon Simmons, Manu Ginobili and even Dejounte Murray.
  • When the Spurs go small with Aldridge, they have a lot of flexibility, and could simply switch all pick and rolls. You couldn’t ask for a better group of guards and wings defensively than Leonard, Green, Simmons, Mills, Murray and even Ginobili in terms of effort and angles to be able to switch the Warriors death lineup of Curry, Thompson, Durant, Andre Iguodala, Green. The Spurs could even play Gasol on Iggy in this lineup, and try to punish the Warriors on the other end. If the Spurs stay big, they can consider leaving Iguodala wide open and having Gasol play zone:

Iguodala shot 36 percent from three on the season and Green shot 31 percent. If they both shoot above 35 percent from the series, the Spurs are in trouble. But if Gasol is playable in zone and Aldridge is able to wall up Curry pick and rolls, the Spurs have the personnel to stay in the fight. The series could come down to who wins the matchup between Green and Aldridge, as these switches could be disastrous for the Spurs.

How the Spurs Match up Offensively

  • The biggest edge the Spurs will have is staying big when the Warriors go to their death lineup. If the Spurs leave Gasol in the game, and hide him or Aldridge on Iguodala, and win on the offensive glass and in the paint, the Warriors will have to play Pachulia and Javale McGee more, which is a win for the Spurs as they have the more skilled bigs top to bottom. The Spurs need to be efficient in the post like in Game 6 against the Rockets.
  • The Spurs will have trouble isolating the Warriors as Draymond Green and Kevin Durant will be difficult matchups for Aldridge and Leonard. They have the length to switch the pick and rolls and defend inside-out. The Spurs should still attack them and make Durant have to guard Aldridge on the low block.
  • Put Steph Curry in pick and rolls! Luckily for Curry, Mills is not Kyrie Irving and so simply putting him through pick and roll after pick and roll will not have the same effect. But the Spurs can try to see if Mills/Aldridge and Mills/Leonard pick and rolls will force Curry onto any of the Spurs’ primary scorers. If not, they can at least use it to get Mills driving down hill, where he is effective dishing the ball to cutters.
  • Klay Thompson will guard Leonard when Durant sits. This is when the Spurs can feast in the Leonard/Aldridge pick and roll game:

Here, Leonard easily gets the jumper, but he could have also dumped the ball into Aldridge with Thompson on him. Green is eager to switch, and the Spurs are uniquely positioned to make the Warriors guards pay for switching.

  • Ball movement and cutting. The best counter to great defense is to simply wear out the opponent with constant cutting, side-to-side ball movement, and attacking off the catch. The Warriors haven’t had to defend this version of the Spurs, especially the four-out look with Simmons. It was hard to imagine the Spurs could win small-ball minutes against the Rockets, but they did.

Others Factors the Spurs Can Look to

  • The Spurs just played two competitive series against the Grizzlies and Rockets. They won both in six games and avoided the wear-you-down Game 7 in both rounds. Although the Warriors are healthier and more rested, the Spurs might be ready for the task at hand and could catch the Warriors waking up form two easy sweeps. Game 1 is critical.
  • The Warriors are much better than the Rockets, but stylistically, the Spurs had six games to tinker with defending a small-ball, 3-point launching offense.
  • Gregg Popovich has coached against Mike Brown before, and if the Spurs can get this series to 2-2, coaching will matter more in a best of three series.
  • Tony Parker would have likely had issues trying to keep up defensively in this series. Having Mills start out of the gate could help prevent quick deficits.
  • The Spurs are confident right now and are playing with house money.