There was more suspense involved than usual, but the Spurs secured a postseason spot for the 21st consecutive year. The reward for the resilience they showed in a wretched season? A first-round meeting with the reigning champions, the Golden State Warriors.
The Spurs had every chance to avoid such a tough matchup but untimely road losses in the last five games of the season prevented them from doing so. Now San Antonio is facing a likely early exit. Based on talent alone, the series should be over quickly. Yet there is some hope that, even without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs can make it competitive.
The Warriors simply don’t look like the unstoppable juggernaut they were in recent seasons. They have been a .500 team since March. Stephen Curry, who’s at the center of what makes them so deadly on offense, will miss the first round. They are still the most talented team in the league, but haven’t been as dominant as they were in past seasons.
So let’s take a deep dive into the matchup.
Tale of the tape
San Antonio Spurs Golden State Warriors
Record: 47-35 (7th) Record: 58:24 (2nd)
ORTG: 105.5 (17th) ORTG: 112.2 (1st)
DRTG: 102.4 (5th) DRTG: 104.2 (9th)
Season series: Warriors, 3-1.
How the Spurs can slow down the Warriors
The Warriors might not have Curry, but they still have Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Shutting all three of them down is impossible. The Spurs do have the tools to do a better job than most of slowing them down, however, thanks to a mix of individual mettle and clever help defense schemes executed with a lot of discipline.
The Spurs typically do a lot of switching when facing the Warriors. They don’t worry about cross matching in transition as much as they do about not leaving anyone open. Thompson’s defender is tasked with chasing him around off-ball screens but Pop has no qualms about switching a big onto him if he slips away. They also switch a lot when Durant is involved either as ball handler or screener in the pick and roll to prevent open shots and force Durant to use seconds as he sets up an isolation to take advantage of the mismatch.
San Antonio also sends a lot of help Durant’s and Thompson’s way. They are not afraid to leave Draymond Green open from beyond the arc to do so. That’s something teams typically do when facing the Warriors, as Green is dangerous with the ball in his hands but is an unreliable and streaky shooter. The same applies to Andre Iguodala, who might take some of Curry’s minutes. Their bench lacks punch this year, so there are fewer adjustments for Kerr to try out than in the past.
Make life hard for the stars, force Green and the role players to beat you. That’s the recipe. Even following that game plan perfectly doesn’t guarantee anything, of course. Their stars can hit tough shots. If they go small a lot, the athletic advantage in their favor might make it impossible for the Spurs to keep up.
Still, trying to follow that proven plan is San Antonio’s best chance to keep the games close.
How the Spurs can score enough on the Warriors’ defense
With Leonard out, there just aren’t a lot of reliable weapons on San Antonio’s roster, outside of LaMarcus Aldridge. Rudy Gay has emerged as a decent alternative, as of late, but he’s not a player who can carry an offense by himself. To make up for their lack of elite offensive talent, the Spurs rely on ball and player movement. Despite playing at one of the slowest paces in the NBA, they still rank in the top half of the league in passes and distance covered per game.
The Spurs will need LaMarcus Aldridge to be at his best to keep the offense afloat. He has looked more comfortable posting up while being guarded by Draymond Green and is one of the most secure players on the block, turning it over on a measly six percent of his possessions there. Running the offense through him not only should get them buckets but should also allow the Spurs to avoid live-ball turnovers and control the pace, keys against Golden State.
The Dubs will be prepared for post isolations. They have not hesitated to double LA in the past, taking advantage of the Spurs’ lack of shooting. To make up for it, Anderson will have to keep cutting to the rim with purpose and Dejounte Murray will have to hide in the short corner, much like a big man would. Both will need to crash the offensive glass. Rudy Gay should get some touches on the block, especially when Aldridge rests, to force Durant to exert energy on defense. If Cook plays heavy minutes, posting up Dejounte Murray once or twice might not be a bad idea.
When they stray from the post and put the ball in the guards’ hands, the Spurs’ go-to weapon is the drive and kick. They do them in waves, with the first only yielding a small advantage and the subsequent one building on it, until there’s a gap to exploit. The more disciplined defenses sometimes hold for entire possessions without giving them a good look. The Warriors can be that good, but they also tend to gamble a little. If the Spurs are sharp, they could find some holes that open up for a little while.
They will need to attack as soon as those opportunities present themselves, because Golden State has the length and athleticism to recover quickly. Finding a balance between patience and aggressiveness will be key.
How the Spurs can beat the Warriors
The Spurs will need their off-ball switches to be air-tight to prevent Thompson from going off. They will need everyone who switches onto Durant on the ball to put up a fight. In isolation, Anderson won’t be able to keep Durant from scoring but he will need to make him uncomfortable and use his length to force turnovers. Green needs to be forced to be a scorer, not a playmaker. If they can do all that without overhelping — a daunting task — they could keep the best offense in the league from overwhelming them.
On the other end, Aldridge needs to dominate to the point where the Warriors have no other choice but to double. When that happens, the Spurs will have to find ways to invert the floor, possibly by having a shooting big man on the court, so that Anderson and/or Murray can hide along the baseline for dump-offs. Gay needs to be a reliable secondary option, even if Durant or Andre Iguodala guard him. As for the rest of the perimeter players, their drives will have to be incisive enough to get the defense moving. When good shots present themselves, they can never hesitate. Good-to-Great is ideal, but with this roster, Good is good enough.
Essentially, to beat the Warriors, even without Curry, the Spurs will need to play their best basketball. And, unfortunately, even that might not be enough against such a talented opponent.