As we head toward the All-Star Break and the ensuing stretch run, let’s look at a few of the most important players in the Western Conference playoff race. Each of these guys brings a specific component which will likely prove significant to the success or failure of their respective teams.
Leonard’s 26-point explosion last night against Chicago came with Duncan, Parker and Ginobii sitting out once again. Despite getting destroyed on the glass, 49-26, the Spurs handed the tired-seeming Bulls a 103-89 thumping. Popovich’s strategy of resting his elder statesmen and leaning on his extremely talented younger core led to a 51-42 half-time lead. Like the Heat two months ago, the Bulls couldn’t seem to find the motivation to compete with this new edition the Spurs put on the court. Popovich knows how good the 21 year-old Leonard can be, and he’s wasting no time getting him that confidence that will allow him to replace an aging Ginobili/Jackson combination at the small forward.
Leonard’s 7-foot-3-inch wing-span allows him to defend power forwards, while he’s quick enough to drive by shooting guards. With confidence, Leonard has the potential to lead San Antonio through the later rounds of the Western Conference playoffs. Last night, Leonard’s 11-18 outing (with zero turnovers) showed just how valuable he can be. Splitter also showed incredible efficiency against one of the league’s toughest defenses, going 5 of 7 from the field and knocking down all 6 free-throws. The type of ball movement this Duncan-less Spurs team put on display was telling. Ironically, it was from the phenomenal passing of Duncan that Splitter has learned how to see the passing angles he now executes so well. The international trio of Splitter-de Colo-Diaw know how to share the rock, as the kids like to say. Danny Green’s range (3 of 5 from distance) is the icing on the cupcake of that great ball movement. The Spurs have the NBA’s best combination of wisdom and youth and it’s because they’ve passed the torch: Duncan to Splitter, Bowen/Jackson to Leonard, Ginobili to Green.
Golden State Warriors: Bogut’s foot, Curry’s ankle, Jack’s shoulder, Thompson’s touch, and defensive intensity
Speaking of Jack, the Warriors have fallen on some hard times on the road recently (losing to three playoff teams and then getting blown out at Dallas without any of the above players on the floor except for Klay Thompson. The Warriors will battle it out with Denver for the 5th seed (and the chance to face Memphis–not an appetizing prospect but better than OKC, SA or LAC). The Warriors will need every ounce of feisty energy from Andrew Bogut and his surgically-repaired foot and every quick pull-up transition three-pointer that Steph Curry provides in order to make the noise that the crowd at Oracle literally makes in April. Thanks to Jarrett Jack’s rebirth and Klay Thompson’s hot shooting, this offense isn’t solely dependent on Curry’s shot-making and penetration. As Bogut increases his minutes, the rust is being removed and the Warriors have looked like a legitimate “tough out.” Health will be the key. The defensive identity the team developed in November and December has gone away at times, as Bogut’s arrival has changed the rotation and the Warriors were bound to regress at some point. That defensive energy has to return at crucial moments. While David Lee’s offense and board work have been exemplary, can he score against the interior defense of Memphis or the Clippers?
Thanks for reading and Let's go, Warriors!