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The Spurs force the Warriors to evolve or die

The perpetually stalwart defense and crisp offense of San Antonio has repeatedly forced Golden State to evolve and grow. This is a quick walk through that history.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It would have been wise to put money on the Spurs winning the season opener given the Warriors’ struggles against this thorny foe in recent years. First, the Spurs are damned good. Second, they always beat the Warriors in the exact same ways, with the notable exception of last year.

The Phantom Menace

The Spurs have come up with so many wins against the Warriors by using super fundamental defense to turn every mistake into an offensive opportunity, and running offense with clockwork precision.

In the pre-Mark Jackson era, the Warriors stunk historically so, of course, the Spurs won. Jackson brought buy-in into vigorous defense, but the simple isolation offense was easily stifled. And even when resting starters the Spurs smacked the Warriors.

Attack of the Clones

In the 2014-15 season, Steve Kerr debuted as head coach and brought a new motion offense, borrowing heavily from the Seven Seconds Or Less Suns, the Spurs Motion Offense and a sprinkling of the Phil Jackson-Tex Winter Triangle. (For further reading, see: Notes on the Warriors' new offense: Feeding the post.)

The Warriors walloped every team from the start of Kerr’s tenure as head coach, despite using only a rudimentary version of the offense ... save for the Spurs.

The Revenge of the Sith

It makes sense, right? The Spurs invented a third of the offense, so they practice against the Motion Offense every day. And the Warriors were not advanced enough with the offense to outsmart the Spurs. Stephen Curry had not yet evolved into Stephen Curry, so he couldn’t really beat the Spurs defenders one-on-one.

Notes on Turnovers: The Movie! details how turnovers can pile up for the Warriors during the course of a game, due to:

  • “Creative” ballhandling gone awry;
  • Sloppy or errant passes;
  • Footwork misfortunes; or
  • San Antonio steals.

In that dismal outing against the Spurs on November 11, 2014, the Warriors racked up 20 turnovers. Watch and weep:

This was such a stunning loss that the Warriors simplified the offense to avoid confusion.

The Warriors were fortunate to miss the Spurs in the 2015 Playoffs. A more simplified offense — along with the introduction of the Small Ball Death Squad — was enough to beat the rest of the league and win the championship. Needless to say, given Golden State’s history of struggle against San Antonio, the outcome of the 2014-15 NBA championship probably would have been very different if the Warriors had faced the Spurs along the way.

A New Hope

And then, as if by magic, the Warriors solved the Spurs at the start of the 2015-16 season. The Spurs had foiled the Warriors’ offense by putting extra pressure on the initial passes, forcing the Warriors to go to the second options and counters, which they were not yet good at doing. Now, in the second year of the Kerr era, the Warriors added an array of backdoor cuts whereby the Warriors would sneak to the basket to counter the Spurs’ overplays.

The Warriors executed really well on both sides of the ball and stopped the Spurs on offense well enough, as documented here.

The Empire Strikes Back

In March, the undead Spurs came back with a new defense. Realizing the Warriors had solved the defensive overplay, they adopted an all-switching defense. That means that every time a Warrior set a screen, a Spurs defender would switch to the screen user. This worked pretty well and suddenly was copied across the league in an end-of-season twist to challenge the Warriors’ offense.

Now, the Warriors had to evolve or be stifled. In the last dozen games of the 2015-16 season, Golden State threw new elements into the offense — new three-person versions of plays to make switching decisions complex and subject to mistakes.

Return of the Jedi

Did it work?

In two stunning end-of -year games (including the memorable one at San Antonio with the home-win record on the line), the Warriors beat the Spurs in workmanlike fashion using a combination of the three-man game plays, crushing defense, discipline and creative ways for Curry to attack the basket.

Unexpectedly, the Warriors did not have to pass a final exam against the Spurs because the Thunder advanced to the Western Finals instead.

Then, the Finals happened.

But let’s not go there.

The Force Awakens

This year, however, the team appears to be back to the same old lapses — only compounded by miscommunication as a result of having so many new players in the rotation. For Golden State to beat San Antonio this season, the team must reclaim the backcuts and three-man game plays and avoid the sloppy, out-of-sync play that was on display in the season opener.

But devising a strategy to re-solve the Spurs based off of Game 1 play may be tough. The Warriors’ offense was so poorly executed that it is hard to determine what the Spurs were doing defensively. Air balls, bricks and other bad misses ... lost dribbles ... sloppy passes ... The Warriors’ offense was incomprehensible to the point that the Spurs’ defense became indecipherable — obscured by the distracting, clown-show foibles of the Warriors’ offense.

If there was any theme, it was the same old story: The Spurs pressured and anticipated the Warriors’ first passes and forced the W’s to go to second options that don’t exist yet.

Add in the Warriors’ garbled defensive communication, lack of effort in transition and complacency on the boards and we see a Warriors’ team that has taken a huge step backward against its chief Western nemesis.

Conclusion

The season is still young, so Golden State still has time to find and settle into a solid flow, and evolve. But, make no mistake about it: the Warriors’ success against the Spurs this season depends on the team maturing into the best version of themselves.

But the Warriors’ midterm exam promises to be difficult. The team faces the Spurs on March 11th and 29th. Both games are in San Antonio and both are second in back-to-backs for Golden State. (The Warriors play in Minnesota on March 10th and in Houston on March 28th.)

Considering that the Warriors’ only home game against the Spurs was the season opener, this schedule couldn’t be any sweeter for San Antonio. Given the history between the two teams and a schedule that heavily favors the Spurs, chances are high that San Antonio will sweep the series.

But a San Antonio sweep is not guaranteed.

The Warriors still have two opportunities to show how they’ve matured against the Spurs. Otherwise, it will just be the same old story.