I poured over the statistics for this semifinal series between an upstart team coming off its second playoff series win in nearly 21 years and a veteran championship-caliber team playing in the Western Conference semifinals for the 11th time in the past 13 years.
Believe me, I was huddled over my laptop, in sweats, cramming a bag of Cheetos in my mouth and mouthing inaudible words at potential matchups, lineup data, shot charts, Synergy stats and whatever the hell else floats around the internet these days.
There was about three ways I could go about writing this series preview piece:
1. Arbitrary breakdowns on potential matchups—mostly how the Spurs will guard Curry and whether Carl Landry and Harrison Barnes can match up against Tiago Splitter at the four-position. You can have your expert scouting and advanced statistical analysis here.
2. Narrative-based summary about how no one is giving the Warriors a chance and how the pressure falls on the Spurs, rusty, especially after sitting at home playing Call of Duty (can you imagine Tim Duncan playing Call of Duty? All stoic and sniping people, right?!).
3. Start writing and don't stop until my wrist hurts and the bag of Cheetos is empty (LARGE BAG ON SALE, THANK YOU VON'S!)
Let's get this out in the open first: the Spurs are a better basketball team than the Warriors. They defend better, execute to a tee on all phases on the court, shoot the three-ball almost as well as the Warriors and own countless hours and years of postseason experience. And did I mention that veterans like Duncan, Parker and Ginobili were nursing nagging injuries in their eight days off?
But if there's one thing that could happen in this series, and it came true in the six games against Denver, Stephen Curry has the ability to own the title as the best player on the court. The story broke almost perfectly against the Nuggets as their players were never able to combat his shooting runs. Sure, Andre Iguodala played decent defense but he never tried to take over the game, for reasons known only to him, shooting under 13 times per game while repeatedly giving the ball up to Corey Brewer, Wilson Chandler and Andre Miller. The Warriors gladly watched them shoot and the Nuggets cringed at the sight of every Curry 3 rippling through the net.
The best player in a series so often emerges victorious, as evidenced by LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan winning championships in the past decade. Gauging their performance over a full season, one would argue that Duncan is the better player, despite playing the third-lowest minutes per game in his career.
Curry was a +52 in six games against the Denver Nuggets. That's almost a nine-point increase per game, and he plays nearly 40 minutes per contest. The Warriors will have Bogut combating some of his play down low, unlike the past 88 years where Duncan dominated the paint by his lonesome. The Spurs? They'll throw doubles, triples, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green at Curry but if I don't see a Tony Allen, LeBron James or Avery Bradley walking through that door, I think he'll be able to get his shot off just fine. As much length as Leonard and Green hold, they're not nearly the physical defenders that Bradley and Allen are that would give Curry trouble—let's not forget Bradley shutting Curry down to the tune of 6-22 shooting and four turnovers in the regular season. It was tough sledding getting the ball past halfcourt against the Boston Celtics' defensive ace.
The series won't be as simple as the best player automatically winning four games but if Curry can keep creating the way he has, there's no reason to think that he can't take another proverbial leap into superstardom.
Let's look at a couple questions I got from Twitter and through e-mail the other day:
How will the Warriors defend Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili on the wings? Should Jarrett Jack run the point guard position if it takes the ball out of Stephen Curry's hands? - Anthony Clay, New York
I tried to go through a piece without micro-analyzing but here it goes. There isn't much to fall back on this season as the Warriors have played the Spurs four times and the Spurs were either resting their players or Bogut wasn't playing in most of the games, rendering any previous knowledge useless. Parker represents a challenge similar to Ty Lawson; a guard that can penetrate, shoot (though not the three) and pass. The difference? He can run the pick-and-roll to death with Duncan and Splitter while Lawson rarely out-executed the defense, instead just shaking off Jack or Thompson and finishing.
Curry won't be able to stay in front of Parker and Jackson found this out in the regular season and did put Thompson on him, leading to a 7-18 performance in a win in mid-February. The narrative here is a Curry vs. Parker matchup because they're in about the same tier of point guards, a little underrated and overlooked, but the likelihood of them guarding each other is about the same as Kate Upton asking me out tonight. Bogut had trouble coming out on Lawson's pick-and-rolls and it wouldn't surprise anyone if Pop gears his offense towards side and above the break pick-and-rolls. We'll find out if Bogut has enough mobility to stem the penetrator and retreat for the rebound.
As for Manu Ginobili, he's looked relatively healthy coming off the bench, averaging 19.5 minutes per game. According to ESPN.com, the Spurs are 19.3 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court; the number drops to a +.02 in the regular season. The horrid Los Angeles Lakers and sample size plays a role in this but expect a fully engaged Manu euro-stepping to the basket off penetration kickouts and knife through butter dishes to cutters under the basket. Even though Manu's slashing ability is to be accounted for, it's probably low on the priority list of defensive assignments, behind the pick-and-roll, pick-and-roll and pick-and-roll. With Bogut protecting the rim, it's the adjustment on those drives that's most important.
The Spurs will kill any team through
boredom precision passing on offense because the opposing team can't recover off the off-ball screens and misdirection movements that appear simple to defend but loses defenders rather easily. Without David Lee playing, their movement might not work as well. This brings us to a rookie that came out of nowhere in the first round and wrecked havoc on the Nuggets defensively, Draymond Green. His instincts defensively are much better than Barnes and even Thompson's and he will play a huge role in containing Manu and Parker.
Now for the offense: there were times in the last game, and the season, that everyone in the arena knew what Jarrett Jack was going to do with the ball, and the ensuing result as well. Is this Jack's fault for refusing to shed his Monta Ellis-tunnel vision goggles or Curry's inability to cope with physical off-ball defense that prevents him from getting to the ball? I'd argue that it's a little of both; Jack rarely goes out of his way to pass to Curry, or anyone, instead choosing to drive and kick, which is an effective weapon, until he can't get by the defender, which happens often in crunch time. On the other hand, Curry, on several occasions in the fourth quarter, just refused to go get the ball to initiate because either, the play wasn't for him, or he was tired. The latter is acceptable because of his ankle and the minutes played, but the former probably needs to change if they want to win this series. Similar to Kevin Durant's situation in Oklahoma City, he goes on extended runs without getting the ball where he wants because he isn't a ballhog or someone that will go out of his way to run his own offense. Having Jack handle the ball in the second through third quarters is significant because Curry can run off screens but when it's crunch time, it'll behoove Curry to go get the ball up top and start the offense himself. He's a better handler, shooter, creator and scorer than Jack, it should be his game.
Let's remember, it's not like Jack is Russell Westbrook.
Would a fully healthy team (Brandon Rush, David Lee and to an extent, Bogut and Curry) be able to contend and win a series against the Spurs? - Yuhki Sakai, San Francisco
The keys to beating the Spurs wouldn't change without the additions of Lee and Rush; shoot the three at the same pace, stop penetration just enough on defense and limit turnovers. Two of the three factors are possible but don't look for the Warriors to limit the Spurs from scoring from distance after penetration. The Nuggets had plenty of open looks but failed to capitalize because they are a terrible shooting team, so bad that I thought I was watching college basketball for a second.
The Warriors allowed the most threes by opponents, giving up 23.8 per game, and if a couple fell for Brewer, Miller and Iguodala, we might be talking about a different ending to the series. Kudos for Mark Jackson for shuttling the ball towards bad three-point shooters but the Spurs are a different story. Matt Bonner and Danny Green both shoot well over 43 percent while Parker, Gary Neal, Kawhi Leonard and Ginobili all shoot over 35 percent. Watching what the Spurs throw at Curry is intriguing but the series will be won and lost at the three-point line, where the Spurs, perhaps surprisingly, hold the advantage—though Curry remains the ace-in-the-hole for Jackson.
With Lee, they could attack Splitter on defense but that's another mismatch on defense and the rotations become much slower. Rush is an excellent defender and would add much-needed depth behind Barnes and Thompson. However, with the uncertainty coming off ACL injuries—ask Derrick Rose how it's going—we can't fully say he'd return at 100 percent. Barnes was big at the power forward position in the Nuggets series but he won't be able to do much against Splitter on defense and look for Landry to play most of those minutes unless Coach Pop goes small.
Perhaps the most important storyline, and this goes underlies the previous points, is how Mark Jackson will adjust to Gregg Popovich's adjustments. It's now consensus that Jackson thoroughly outcoached George Karl but Pop is a totally different beast, one that's been ahead of the game for the past several decades, sustaining a championship-caliber team since I was born—21 years and they've missed the playoffs once.
The Warriors would need another Bogut-sized impact, literally and figuratively, to change the landscape of this series and it'd be hard to see that come to fruition even if Lee and Rush were able to play. For the moment, they'll gladly play the role of the underdog, and at this juncture in Curry's young career, that's just fine.
I think I took care of all three ways to write this thing, right?
Prediction: I believe the Warriors can steal either Game 1 or 2, ultimately lose one at home, probably Sunday given the unnecessarily early noon start, and the Spurs will finish it at Oracle in Game 6.
Spurs in 6.
Statistical support for this piece provided by NBA.com, unless stated otherwise.
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