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Western Conference Finals Game 1 Preview: Warriors-Spurs, at last!

Two powerhouse teams are set to collide. Happy Mother’s Day!

NBA: Golden State Warriors at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

When the Warriors lost to the Spurs in the 2013 Western Conference Semifinals, it was a pivotal moment in a lot of ways.

From that point on, the Warriors have been a revolutionary 207-39 over the subsequent three year stretch. After back-to-back MVP seasons from Stephen Curry, a championship and a record-setting regular season, the Warriors added the biggest free agent acquisition in franchise history.

And yet, these Spurs still scare me a little ...

It is fitting, then, that the Warriors’ shot at redemption goes through the San Antonio Spurs, and it’s not going to be easy, even with Durant.

Over these last historic three years, the Spurs have dogged us. Where the Warriors have 207 wins, the Spurs have 183, but San Antonio’s record during this span has been overshadowed by Klay Thompson’s three-point shooting and, well, Steph Curry.

You see, the Spurs are doing really, REALLY well, and they would be the talk of the NBA if not for the Warriors. Just like Klay’s shooting records are almost completely overshadowed by Curry’s world-shattering performances, the media would be touting the Spurs as the team most likely to dethrone King James and the Cavs ... if not for the gigantic shadow cast by the Warriors.


San Antonio Spurs @ Golden State Warriors

Game 1 - 12:30 PST, Sunday May 14th

TV: ABC

Blog Buddy: Pounding the Rock


This will be the toughest battle of the playoffs, so far. The number-one offense pitted against the number-one defense — as it should be. It’s like a Kung-Fu movie, like when Bruce Lee had to fight his way past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game of Death.

I’m ready for that.

The Spurs just absolutely crushed the Houston Rockets in a Game 6 while playing without their best player, just like they slowly plowed their way through so many other opponents over the years. But not us! Not this time.

Without further ado, here is the position-by-position breakdown and team preview:

PROJECTED STARTERS

GSW: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia

SAS: Patty Mills, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol

Point Guard

Stephen Curry vs. Patty Mills (Advantage: Warriors, by a deep Steph Curry three)

The Spurs lost Tony Parker to injury, so it has thrust Patty Mills into the spotlight and he has been pretty capably filling in. Still, this is a big ask from Mills and the advantage arrow strongly points in favor of the Warriors. It will be team defense for sure (an area where the Spurs excel, of course). But this will probably be a series where we see Curry attack more aggressively on offense. Recall that in the one game the Warriors won against the Spurs this season, it was Curry who was the leading scorer.

Parker’s absence bumps the entire Spurs’ backcourt rotation down a notch. Parker’s 25 minutes per game was the fifth highest during the regular season for the Spurs. Those minutes will have to come from somewhere, but it’s unclear how much Coach Popovich is going to entrust each player. But the loss of Parker immediately puts this matchup issue at the center of the Warriors’ game plan.

If Mills can effectively get by Curry and cause trouble in Golden State’s defensive rotations, the Spurs will be satisfied to leave him in, as part of what will undoubtedly be a multi-pronged approach to covering this position.

Shooting Guards

Klay Thompson vs. Danny Green (Advantage: Warriors)

This one could be closer than you think. Both players are extremely proficient shooters (Green is a career 40% from deep, while Thompson outpaces him at 42%) and both are known for their perimeter defense. But there is more. Just like Thompson, Danny Green has sneakily developed a bit of a handle lately.

Thompson’s shot has been a bit off so far in this postseason with a career-worst postseason True Shooting percentage of .510 (well below his .588 during last year’s playoff run). He’s a streaky shooter, so the hope is that he’ll take advantage of all the focus on Curry and Durant and return to his former most dangerous self. We could definitely use it in this series.

Small Forward

Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard (Advantage: Warriors, but not by as much as we would like)

Kawhi Leonard is going to be a problem that the Warriors’ offense will have to figure out. The coaching staff and players are going to have to balance between moving Leonard out away from the action to keep him isolated, and letting Durant work the matchup against one of the league’s premier defenders. On the other end, it doesn’t get much easier. Leonard developed a ton on the offensive end, and was ninth in the NBA during the regular season with a career-best 26 points per game (or so).

These guys have met before, as told by Anthony Slater in his amazing preview in the Mercury News:

The goliath small forwards clashed for the third time in the postseason last year. Both had great series, but Durant’s heroics won out. In a pivotal Game 4, trailing 2-1 in the series and down by eight heading into the fourth quarter, Durant temporarily resuscitated the Thunder’s season with a fourth quarter for the ages. He went 6-of-6 shooting for 17 points primarily against Leonard, the Defensive Player of the Year, while also holding Leonard to a scoreless quarter on 0-of-5 shooting. The Thunder won the fourth quarter 34-16, the game and eventually the series.

Leonard is a different player now, but he will need to be a significant factor in the series if the Spurs have any hope of winning. He’s improved offensively, but so has Durant on the defensive end. It’s going to be a matchup for the ages, that’s for sure.

Power Forward

Draymond Green vs. LaMarcus Aldridge (Advantage: Warriors, by a loud yell)

After the retirement of Tim Duncan, the Spurs made the uncharacteristic move of bringing in a big name free agent. Since coming to the team, Aldridge has done fairly well. His mid-range game and general post savvy fit in well with the motion-heavy offense that the Spurs run.

Although giving up size here, that’s nothing new for Draymond Green. He’s mentioned earlier this year that with the absence of Bogut, he has really taken on primary ownership on the defensive end. So far, he’s been up to the task and is the leading active player with 2.6 blocks per game so far. Historically, Aldridge has been a critical element in both the wins, and the losses:

It’s basically going to come down to who can move the needle more. Green is playing some of the best basketball of his career, and Aldridge is fighting a lingering knee issue. In a series, I’m giving the advantage arrow to Green.

Center

Pachulia, JaVale McGee, David West vs. Pau Gasol, David Lee (Advantage: none — even Steven)

I’m running a little long here, so let’s just lump all the centers together and discuss, shall we?

When the Spurs knocked out the Rockets, one of the key moves was that they stuck with their bigs. The rebounding duo of Gasol and Lee/Aldridge was a big part of what stymied the Rockets’ attack. I can’t say enough nice things about Gasol and Lee, but if I was forced to say something mean, I’d probably start with their defense.

The Warriors and coach Mike Brown don’t make any secret about it; they pretty much keep throwing guys out to the court until they find a matchup they like. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t (in which case we just go small). But expect both sides to draw some blood from these matchups, as there are strengths and weaknesses that both sides will be prodding and trying to exploit.

Coaches

Steve Kerr / Mike Brown vs. Greg Popovich (Advantage: Spurs)

Popovich is really the gold standard in coaching. He’s been so reliably excellent that there is no question that the advantage here goes to the Spurs. He’s got a less talented roster to work with, but they’ve defied expectations all season. Popovich is a master at finding ways to utilize players that maximizes their strengths. It’s going to probably take some coaching wizardry for the Spurs to pull off an upset, but rest assured that Pop has more than a few ideas to try.

Kerr, for his part, was back at the Warriors’ practice facility for what I assume was a lengthy game-planning meeting. Both Kerr and Brown are tightly tied to the Popovich coaching tree and, therefore, are extremely familiar with the concepts and actions that the Spurs run.

(Thanks to 3dhicksboys for first finding this tweet.)

Also, Brown mentioned that David West, who was with the Spurs last year, was “very helpful” in regard to the game plan. I know Mike Brown will be at a distinct strategic disadvantage here, but Kerr has done everything he can to put him in a position to succeed.

Benches

Mostly, I just want to segue into this quote from resident basketball psychologist, Sleepy Freud:

Dang, and in that comparison, I forgot to mention Ian Clark, who’s probably not far off the caliber of Patty Mills (not as good a passer, but a bit longer and more rugged, an equally good shooter/scorer).

On paper, with Parker out, the Warriors are not only significantly better at each spot on the depth chart (except the KD/Kawhi spot, which we can call a wash) but also a bit deeper.

Shaun Livingston and Ian Clark are, I think, an unspoken advantage in this series. As Sleepy says above, you can somewhat pair off Mills and Clark and then still hold Livingston to deploy as an additional weapon.

The Spurs, of course, have an actual potential response in store. As Popovich has always done, he has developed the deep end of his roster and will now attempt to reap some benefit out of the Patty Mills -Jonathon Simmons- Dejounte Murray triumvirate of guys the Spurs picked up to give Steph Curry fits.

As Marcus Thompson discussed in his book, Curry may take this as something of a personal challenge. This series could very well hinge on how well these Spurs’ role players can fare against not just Curry, but Livingston and Clark as well.

Murray posted a double-double in just 24 minutes in their series-clinching win over the Rockets, but it’s yet to be seen how much the rookie can be reliably counted on. This is both a short- and long-term issue for the Spurs so expect any outcome to reverberate into into the Spurs’ offseason decision-making.

As always, Andre Iguodala is our ace in the hole. He picks and chooses his spots. While he may have his hands full with the athletic wings that the Spurs have on their bench, the main matchup I’m excited for is Iguodala and Manu Ginobili, who has come up huge for the Spurs since they lost Parker. Much like Iguodala, you think this guy has lost a step ... until he blows by you or blocks your shot. Oh, and both players are currently heavily underrated due to the amount of minutes they play.

Prediction

Arg. This is a tough one for me …

In my heart of hearts, I carry a lot of doubts.

However, as close as the Spurs have been chasing us over the past three years, they have been in second, behind these Warriors. This Warriors’ team has a date with destiny. In spite of my doubts, I know the Spurs are not bloody likely to win this series, and Vegas agrees. Currently, as reported by ESPN “a $100 bet on the Warriors to win the series would win $6.25. That same $100 bet on the Spurs would win $900.”

Wow. What an insult, right?

So, why not just go all in here and tempt fate. Are there any gods of basketball that are not yet satisfied with the amount of suffering Warriors’ fans have endured? In keeping with our postseason mantra around here (and with all due respect to the Spurs), I’m calling for a sweep.

Fo’ Fo’ Fo’ Fo’

It’s cocky, but as Nate Parham says, “[screw] your optics.”

Could it go to six, or even seven games? Sure, and it wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong. But the Warriors are built for this moment.

Warriors in four.

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