There’s basketball, and there are the things that are greater than basketball. This is ostensibly true across all 30 NBA teams and their fanbases, but nowhere is it reiterated so often, as both a reality check and a means to re-calibrate game to game, as it is with the Spurs. When a line of questioning veers away from the tangible and towards the figurative or metaphysical, players and coach alike are quick to offer the same cursory reminder: It’s Just Basketball. The distinction is there both because it is helpful and because it’s true, allowing us all to separate two worlds that coexist only so much as we allow them to.
It is thus unsurprising that, following Wednesday’s heartbreaking Greater Than Basketball news, Game 3 of Spurs-Warriors did not open with a moment of silence or jumbotron tribute. Save for the fact that one familiar face was not pacing up and down the sidelines, the uninformed observer would not have been able to perceive the wider, somber context that members of the team (as well as some from the opposing team) were experiencing while attempting to focus on the Basketball Things at hand.
In Pop’s place stepped Ettore Messina, flanked by fellow assistant James Borrego, together carrying on the very 2017-18 Spurs theme of ‘next man up’. For fans that have seen LaMarcus Aldridge slide into the featured role for a team that had been built around another star, Dejounte Murray become its new starting point guard, and Danny Green attempt to do anything with his left hand or off the dribble, the shifting-up of duties was nothing new. And the results were just as mixed.
Despite the circumstances, it was ultimately the Basketball Things that decided Game 3’s 110-97 loss to the Warriors — beginning with the Spurs’ shooting woes. Time after time, the offense, functioning to its 2017-18 capacity, generated opportunities either out of double teams in the post or through dribble penetration, only for the open man to come up empty. San Antonio made just 7 of 33 three-pointers on the night and has now made just 11 of their last 61 through Games 2 and 3. That won’t cut it against most teams, and certainly not the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors suffered their own shooting woes, making an uncharacteristically low 10 of 32 shots from beyond the arc. What helped them (beyond San Antonio’s icy touch) was their efficiency in the mid range, as rangy wings like Kevin Durant (26 points), Klay Thompson (19 points), and Shaun Livingston (16, off the bench) had no qualms with getting chased off the three-point line and doing their damage from 15 feet or closer. It’s not easy to drop 110 points on a game with a 94.7 pace when your threes aren’t falling, but just look at all that green:
The Warriors only need a sliver of daylight to make you pay. Meanwhile, Spurs shooters had plenty, and Golden State was often willing to live with it if it meant preventing guys like Aldridge from scoring. Draymond Green was given free license to roam whenever on Kyle Anderson or Dejounte Murray, and both players’ limitations have never seemed so exposed. The Spurs have learned not to play the two together at this point, but they remain at an offensive disadvantage if neither is unable to capitalize on the space provided. (Murray, to his credit, made one corner three on Thursday, but offered little as the type of playmaker in the half-court a team needs in their playoff point guard.)
The Spurs did get a lift from Murray’s understudy, Tony Parker, who posted his best game in weeks with 16 points in just 17 minutes. Eight of those came in the second quarter, which saw San Antonio seize the lead for the final time. Parker’s creation off the dribble, combined with some plucky Patty Mills moments and the occasional times Aldridge wasn’t enveloped by defenders, provided the only consistent offense the Spurs could muster.
And thus, the Spurs head into Sunday’s Game 4 in an 0-3 hole, a scenario that would feel daunting were it not already for the awareness of their opponent and their own shortcomings. The few adjustments the team can make are overshadowed by the need to simply show up, bring the same perfunctory effort and execution one more time, and hope for the best.
A few closing notes...
More minutes for Bertans
One of the few variables left right now may be in how Davis Bertans and Bryn Forbes’ minutes are managed. On Thursday, it was Bertans with the 20-9 edge, with Forbes mostly getting his in garbage time.
Aggressiveness versus McGee
The Spurs appeared to make a point to attack the Warriors’ long center early in the game, and to considerable success. I’d expect that to continue onto Game 4.