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Path of Destruction: The Warriors pounded the Spurs’ rock until it finally broke

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Once deemed impenetrable and unbreakable, the Spurs dynasty has finally crumbled under the pressure of a new Warrior dynasty.

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

Destruction Index

San Antonio Spurs level of destruction: Maximum destruction

Their Big Three and franchise player are gone. Possible low playoff seed, but no longer seen as high-level competition/threat.

Golden State Warriors impact on his coaching career: 3/10

  • Gregg Popovich is an institution and a legend in San Antonio, and no amount of butt-kicking by the Warriors can ever force the Spurs franchise to part ways with him.
  • However, the modern day dominance displayed by the Warriors over the Spurs has — directly and indirectly — caused Popovich’s allure as a player’s coach to show some noticeable cracks (e.g., LaMarcus Aldridge almost leaving San Antonio, Kawhi Leonard actually leaving San Antonio).

Warriors’ impact on franchise’s culture: 7/10

  • After years of dominance by the Spurs over the Warriors, the arrival of Steve Kerr and the emergence of Stephen Curry as an MVP-caliber superstar threatened to break — and eventually did break — that dominance.
  • Tim Duncan, arguably the greatest power forward of all time, the greatest Spur of all time, and the cornerstone of the Spurs’ culture, retired in 2016.
  • Manu Ginobili, the talismanic Argentinian legend — well-beloved by so many Spurs fans — retires after the Spurs get eliminated by the Warriors for the second straight year.
  • Tony Parker, the Spurs’ French dynamo, decides to move on from the Spurs by signing with the Charlotte Hornets.
  • Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs’ franchise player, who many Spurs fans considered to be the heir apparent to George Gervin, David Robinson, and Duncan, states his desire to be traded away from San Antonio, and eventually does get traded to the Toronto Raptors.

A once one-sided matchup

Before the Strength in Numbers era, the Warriors were widely known to be punching bags for a number of teams in the league, the Spurs perhaps being Floyd Mayweather among them. Starting from an April 1, 2008 game, the Spurs amassed a 16-game winning streak against the Warriors, which ended on February 22, 2013 — nearly five years later.

A 16-game winning streak by the Spurs vs the Warriors
Land of Basketball.com

This is matched by another 16-game winning streak dating back to April 4, 1998, and ending on October 30, 2002 — a four-year stretch of losing against the Spurs.

....and yet another 16-game winning streak by the Spurs vs. the Warriors
Land of Basketball.com

Dating back to the 1976-77 season, the Warriors have an all-time head-to-head regular season record of 60-107 against the Spurs — a winning percentage of 36%.

All-time regular season dominance
Land of Basketball.com

The Warriors amounted to nothing more than a sparring partner for the Spurs, a scrimmage scalp who provided good workouts for their players. While the Warriors toiled and languished in the bottom heap of the proverbial NBA trash pile, the Spurs built a dynasty that netted them five NBA championships over a period of fifteen years.

The fight-back begins

In the 2013 NBA Playoffs, a young, sixth-seeded Warriors team coached by Mark Jackson stunned the third-seeded Denver Nuggets led by Andre Iguodala in the first round, setting them up for a second round dance with the Spurs. Unsurprisingly, the Warriors were considered underdogs.

Many expected the Spurs to simply roll over the young upstarts. With their vast playoff experience, their big three leading the way, and the Gregg Popovich factor, a sweep was the safe and totally reasonable prediction.

In Game 1, Curry and the Warriors gave the Spurs all they could handle:

It seemed like the Warriors were on their way to stealing Game 1 — and home court — from the Spurs. Until Manu Ginobili happened:

The Warriors recovered to win Game 2, and managed to eke out another win in Game 4 in Oracle Arena. But eventually, the Spurs’ class and experience gave them the series victory in six games.

Despite failing to get past the Spurs, the Warriors proved that they were not just there to get swept. They announced to the rest of the NBA that they were going to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years.

Although the Spurs managed to get past the Warriors and eventually book themselves a return ticket to the NBA Finals, they got their clock cleaned out by Ray Allen:

They lost to LeBron JamesMiami Heat in seven thrilling games. To their credit, they came back the next season to exact revenge upon the Heat, behind the incredible performance of Kawhi Leonard, who was awarded the Finals MVP. They won their fifth title to cement their dynasty — they had their next franchise centerpiece in Leonard, deemed the successor to Duncan, and the harbinger for many more titles to come.

“Not so fast,” the Warriors said.

The rise of the new kings of the West

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Sacramento Kings Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

After the 2014 playoffs, the Warriors decided to hire neophyte coach Steve Kerr, who brought along with him a brand new culture and system predicated on ball and player movement — an egalitarian approach that he learned from playing under Gregg Popovich during his time with the Spurs.

The change in culture and system paid dividends immediately. The Warriors finished the 2014-15 regular season with a league-best 67-15 record. Curry won the first of his two MVP awards, and eventually led the team to their first NBA title in forty years.

At this point, the indications were that the Warriors were the young lion of the West ready to grab the reins of power from the old lion Spurs. Curry was even deemed by some the “new Tim Duncan.” Kerr himself, having played with Duncan, drew many comparisons between the two:

Steph sets the whole tone for who we are and our identity as a franchise and a team,” Kerr said. “We talk about joy all the time. Nobody plays with more joy than Steph Curry. The fact that he’s so unselfish both as a player and a human being. He’s so giving. When your best player has those attributes, it’s amazing with the tone it sets ... It reminds me of playing with Tim Duncan in San Antonio where his personality and the force of his humility and talent, which is a rare combination, but the force of that combination is just tone-setting for almost two decades in San Antonio. Steph is doing the same thing.”

The transfer of power

In the 2015-16 season, the Warriors and the Spurs started the season off scorching. When the two teams first met on January 25, 2016, the Warriors had a record of 40-4, while the Spurs had a record of 38-6. This generated a lot of interest and hype leading up to the game.

Instead, the Warriors stamped their class over the Spurs with a 120-90 victory. There was a sense in the air of some sort of a “grabbing of the torch” after the game, as if the Warriors — by force — took the throne of the Western Conference away from the Spurs. Curry ran circles around the Spurs defense all night long, and Leonard, then the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, wasn’t spared:

The Warriors would win the season series against the Spurs 3-1, and would eventually top their previous season’s regular season record by winning 73 games — but they would fail to win the title.

The Spurs, despite finishing the regular season with a 67-15 record, would get eliminated by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Semifinals and prevent a true clash of superpowers from ever happening.

The cracks begin to show

Despite the Finals loss, the Warriors were still considered the title favorites and the top dogs of the Western Conference, solidified further when Kevin Durant joined them and formed a new superteam.

The hype surrounding the new union between Durant and the Warriors got slightly derailed, when on opening night, the Spurs crushed the Warriors, 129-100.

The Spurs would win the regular season series 2-1, and would post a 61-21 record, good enough for the second seed behind the Warriors. Once again, hype was generated around a potential Warriors-Spurs clash in the Western Conference Finals, which came into fruition.

During Game 1 of the WCF, it seemed as if the Spurs were on their way to a dominating victory. However, one fateful sequence changed the fortunes of the Spurs in that series, and perhaps changed the Spurs franchise as we know it.

The question of whether that was an intentional undercut by Zaza Pachulia is a debate that still rages on. But the fact of the matter is that Kawhi’s injury became the catalyst for the Spurs’ eventual downfall from consideration as one of the top teams in the Western Conference. The Warriors would eventually come back and win Game 1, and would eventually win the series by a sweep.

After Game 1 of the WCF, Popovich had interesting thoughts about the injury to his star player:

As Popovich himself put it, he was not a “happy camper,” and you can’t blame him — after all, it greatly ruined their chances of winning against the Warriors. He makes an inference to Pachulia’s history as a dirty player. Being the coach of the Spurs, he would know how a historically dirty player would look like:

The Spurs’ breaking point

In the 2017-18 season, news reports came out that LaMarcus Aldridge had requested a trade from the Spurs, perhaps spurred by a lackluster performance in the playoffs. Eventually, Popovich and the Spurs salvaged the situation. However, one cannot help but wonder about the small cracks starting to appear on the Spurs’ foundation.

Leonard missed the first 27 games of the season with a right quadriceps injury. He would return in December, but would eventually accrue another set of injuries. He played a grand total of nine games for the Spurs, which would be his last nine games for the franchise.

The Warriors would meet the Spurs in the playoffs again, this time in the first round. They would win the series in five games, with Game 5 turning out to be Manu Ginobili’s last game ever in the NBA.

This past offseason, Leonard suddenly wanted out. Not even the allure of Popovich and the culture of excellence of the Spurs could convince him to stay.

Oh, and Tony Parker saying this certainly didn’t help either:

After a drawn-out and dramatic saga, the Spurs finally traded Leonard — along with Danny Green — to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar Derozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected 2019 first round pick. The last of the 2014 championship core was gone, and with it, the Spurs’ status as a top contender in the West.

The Warriors’ drive to become the best in the West — starting all the way back to their 2013 playoff series against the Spurs — became the hammer that eventually broke the Spurs. To quote Jacob Riis, a 19th-century journalist and photographer:

When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

The Warriors kept pounding and pounding, until they finally broke the rock.

NBA: Toronto Raptors-Media Day
Kawhi sends his regards
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports