While we may not have arrived in the exact manner we would have liked, the Golden State Warriors are set to begin their title defense today at noon against the ageless San Antonio Spurs. In a dream scenario, the Warriors would have had everyone healthy for the last few weeks of the season, and would be rolling into the playoffs behind a powerful win streak.
They didn’t. And they aren’t.
But none of that matters now because we are finally hitting the part of the season that truly matters. No excuses, no deferred judgments - just 48 minutes of basketball truth.
WHO: Warriors vs. Spurs
WHAT: Round 1, Game 1
WHEN: Saturday, April 14; 12:00 p.m.
WHERE: Oracle Arena
LISTEN: 95.7 The Game
Blog Buddy: Pounding the Rock
Spurs do some things at an elite level, but not much offensively
Between their relatively plodding pace and conservative offensive tendencies, the Spurs rank nearly dead last in points per game (27th out of the 30 teams). Just for full disclosure here and to preemptively deflect any Spurs fans out there, they do rank considerably higher in offensive efficiency, coming in at 17th place in Offensive Rating (which factors in the pace of play). But no matter how you look at it, the Spurs are pretty unlikely to hang a bunch of points on the Warriors in this series.
They are almost dead last in three pointers attempted per game but it’s not because they are killing it inside either. As a team, the Spurs shot an effective field goal percentage of just .507 - once again near the bottom of the league.
Ok, so what do they do well, offensively?
Lamarcus Aldridge is their leading scorer and anyone who has watched him can tell you, he’s got a shifty effective high post game. Much like our own Kevin Durant, Aldridge is not only able to effectively use his size, he also has enough shooting and dribbling within his skill set to give most defenders fits.
After requesting a trade in the offseason, coach Greg Popovich publicly admitted that he used him wrong last year and they were able to reach a deal to bring Aldridge back. Aldridge has in turn been much better this year, due in no small part to the adjustments Popovich has made in how the Spurs use Aldridge - and it’s a change that extends into their entire offense.
Check out how well he can work when things go well, as per Anthony Slater at the Athletic:
By transitioning back into the high post-oriented offense that has been polished through the well-worn footwork of greats Tim Duncan and David Robinson, the Spurs have mostly abandoned their brief foray into the fast and loose play style that a player like Kawhi Leonard would do best in. Working within an offense that is so centered on the high post has enabled Aldridge to turn in what was arguably the best offensive season of his career. He put up 23 points per game on an extremely respectable true shooting percentage of .570, above his career average of 19 on .538 TS%
He also doesn’t turn the ball over much, which officially makes him a super hero around these parts and probably endlessly endears him to Steve Kerr - who will for SURE gush about this at least once per interview on the subject.
Keys for the Warriors
I recently wrote at length about why these Warriors deserve our faith and trust, but now I’d like to dig into a bit more of an objective case.
From a roster standpoint, the Warriors have more top-end talent. Kevin Durant is a consensus top three player in the NBA, Klay Thompson is the deadliest shooting guard in the league who requires constant attention, and Draymond Green’s ability to run a fast break and do enough of everything causes headaches and mismatches across the court.
Where the Spurs were bottom of the league, the Warriors offense is near the top. Of course, the team will have to play this series without Stephen Curry, but that doesn’t mean that Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson aren’t more than enough of a threat to drive an offense.
It’s going to look different. Without Curry, the Warriors immediately lose a lot of their three point threat. On top of that, the Spurs are elite at preventing three point shot attempts - and there’s a fair amount of evidence that suggests preventing threes is a much more effective defensive deterrent than having defenders play man defense in any certain way. Sorry Mark Jackson, “hand down, man down” is neither a great catch phrase nor an especially astute basketball observation.
The main focus for the Warriors is just going to be to try and run their offense as normal as possible. With Steph Curry on the court, the Warriors were plus-13.7 on the season. Without him they were an unimpressive plus-0.7. We lose a LOT when he’s not on the court.
So, what will the coaches priorities be?
The Warriors offense may struggle a bit, but should be able to inflict enough damage to tread water against the relatively paltry offensive output of the Spurs. If I was the coach, I would just talk defense. If you’ll recall, the team’s most effective run without Curry this season was a defense-fueled 9-1 run in December.
The Spurs are a top heavy offensive team; after Lamarcus Aldridge, their most effective scorers are Patty Mills and Kyle Anderson. If you can first stop Aldridge (which Green should be able to mostly handle), the rest of the team should be able to stifle the Spurs.
Just like that run in December, if the Warriors embrace their defense over their offense, they’ll be hard to beat in a series.
Draymond Green, often referred to as the heartbeat of the team, understands that this is his time to shine. And as Anthony Slater said:
During that 16-1 title stampede last year, he had a rating of 98.6. Remember that first-round series against the Blazers? He had 17 blocks in four games, more than a number of teams had in the first round.
Fast breaks and pace. Crush the Spurs early.
As Scipio pointed out in his excellent Fan Post, the Spurs have developed a nasty habit this season: they’ve been significantly worse on the road.
This Dr. Jekyll with a plus-minus of +9.3 at home and Mr. Hyde with a plus-minus of -7.2 on the road may or may not continue into the Playoffs. As no Popovich team in 20 years has had such a lopsided difference (or even a losing road record), maybe he can turn this around, but it now seems deeply entrenched.
For a relatively punchless Warriors team already facing one of the stoutest half court defenses in the league, it will behoove us to get out and run as often as possible. This is in keeping with Kerr’s philosophy of attacking on the fast break, but will be extra important against the plodding surety of the Spurs half court defensive sets.
If Golden State is able to punch the Spurs hard enough to make them question their place in the NBA landscape, this first game could set a precedent that will help carry the entire series.
Without Curry, everyone becomes a little bit more necessary; but none more so than Draymond Green. Defensively, he will bear the chief responsibility for slowing down Aldridge.
Hopefully Kerr has a bunch of nasty surprises planned to help Green out in this regard. Aldridge will mostly play center, and it seems like the bulk of Zaza Pachulia will probably get the initial crack at slowing him down (though Kerr declined to confirm who the starting Center will be for game one). After that, Green, McGee, Kevon Looney, and maybe even Jordan Bell will get a shot too. But it will eventually come down to Green being the primary agent of chaos - we just need to be sure he’s not the only one out there playing defense.
Offensively, it’s going to be another highwire act for Kerr. He’ll have to navigate the tricky nuance of encouraging Green to play free-flowing offense, while reigning in his propensity for crazy deep threes and poorly thought-out passes.
I’ll be at this game and do my best to pump up the crowd with some early day drinking-fueled Roaracle goodness. If the Warriors are even 1/10th as excited as I am about tomorrow, they should have no trouble getting up for this game.
Warriors 108 - Spurs 93