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What would a Warriors-Spurs Western Conference Finals look like?

I talk with ESPN's Amin Elhassan about the Popovich-Kerr chess game, the San Antonio big men, and what to take away from tonight's game.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview ESPN's Amin Elhassan about the coming Warriors vs. Spurs game, which will be on ESPN at 5:30 PST on Saturday. It'll be the first time they've faced off since January 25th, when the Warriors annihilated the Spurs 120-90 with Tim Duncan out. What can the upcoming game tell us about a possible Warriors-Spurs playoff matchup in the future, if anything?

The first thing Amin emphasized was to not expect either team to show their full hand. They will both be careful of what knowledge they will give to the opposing coach. He explained that, especially with injuries and fatigue, it's hard to read into the outcomes:

In the last game, Tim Duncan didn't play, and the Warriors didn't run plays they usually run.  It's almost like guys are keeping cards close to their vest. Again, we have an injury where Andre Iguodala isn't going to play, so I don't know how much the Warriors will show, particularly after a back-to back.

He went on further to explain that it's one thing to see the Warriors run a set of plays against another opponent on film, and it's a whole other problem to have the Spurs defend it in-game.

I asked him to further clarify what "keeping cards close to their vest" meant to get a handle on what coaches like Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich do to keep their competitive advantages. He replied that coaches hide their strategies in all sorts of ways:

There are plays that Golden State runs quite frequently, for whatever reason, they didn't run them against the Spurs.  Beyond that, most teams definitely don't like to make game-to-game adjustments of their coverages defensively...For that reason, you can play against somebody in the regular season and struggle. Once you get to the playoffs, you can make a tiny adjustment that'll throw a monkey wrench into the other teams plans, because nobody expected you to change your coverages or your defense to the situation.

So no matter the outcome and dynamic from this game, just like last game, take it with a grain of salt.  In the playoffs, the coaches will begin their battle of wits, and the teams will try to constantly adjust to every problem they encounter.

That said, there may be problems that are inherently unsolvable.  I asked Amin if LaMarcus Aldridge is always going to be a defensive liability against the Warriors, just like Kevin Love is with the Cavaliers. He was genuinely worried about Aldridge's fit on the Spurs against the Warriors:

It's an exaggeration [comparing Aldridge to Love], but there's some truth to that. It's an exaggeration in that Kevin Love makes the Cavs' defense worse every night...Whenever he's on the floor, he's a little bit of a liability in that sense. Whereas, the Spurs can have a high-level defense with LaMarcus Aldridge on the floor.  That said, he is the weak spot, he is the point of attack, he is the guy in the first meeting that, whenever Golden State involved him in any sort of defensive play, he wasn't good. You can have a historic-level defense against 28 teams, but if it doesn't work with the 29th team, nobody's going to care what the numbers are.

One argument for Aldridge's potential usefulness against the Warriors is that in his horrible first game against the team, Tim Duncan was sorely missed as a defensive stalwart who could've patched up Aldridge's mistakes. Amin, again, wasn't so sure:

This is a tough one, because Tim Duncan is a great player, and if you look at the numbers defensively, they're a lot better when Tim Duncan plays than that stretch of games he was out injured. But I fail to see how Tim Duncan's defensive strengths impact how the Warriors want to play offensively. They have problems guarding the high pick and roll, they have problems jumping out on shooters coming off screens. Tim Duncan isn't going to be much better at that than the guys that they played because he's older and slower.

Interestingly, Amin also believes that when the Warriors go small, Duncan can punish Draymond Green at the center position offensively better than Aldridge, who may be a negative on both sides of the court.  If Tim Duncan can contribute on offense against the Warriors' small ball lineups, the Warriors may have a problem.

By now, I was wondering if the Spurs did have any lineups that would be able to defend the Small Ball Death Squad, or at least hold them in check.  He said sure, but not through conventional means:

I think Boris Diaw can do it at the five, or maybe even David West, even though he's not as mobile of course, alongside Kawhi Leonard at the four, because Kawhi's a good enough rebounder and defender.  They've got a couple of good combinations out there, it's just the next thing becomes...Let's assume the Spurs win this game, and they win it because they play Kawhi at the four and Diaw at the five.  Are you prepared for life where you tell Aldridge for an entire seven-game series, "Eh, we're not going to go to you down the stretch?"

It's worth noting that Aldridge was reported to have some leadership and immaturity issues in Portland immediately before coming to San Antonio.  Is it possible that we won't see any of him in a playoff series, and in one year he's grown enough emotionally to be fine with that? Amin is skeptical.

Amin also warned about the hype and impact of the last two Warriors-Spurs games, which are the fourth-to-last and second-to-last games of the regular season. With both team's playoff seedings likely to be set in stone, Popovich may rest his stars:

Traditionally, if San Antonio doesn't have something to play for, in terms of seeding, they sit their guys...If nothing's at stake they won't play their guys, because there's literally no point in playing that game.  I don't think Popovich cares about the home game record.  It's nice, but for him, his single goal is the postseason.

So if you're going to take anything away from this game, focus on LaMarcus Aldridge's impact whenever he's on the floor.  If he's a weak spot again, that could be a huge problem for the Spurs.  Popovich may be able to shore up the defense in the playoffs, especially against the Warriors' small lineups, but it may be without Aldridge on the floor.

Follow Hugo at @HugoKitano, Amin at @AminESPN

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