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Key Matchup: What are the Spurs going to do about Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson?

The Spurs are going to have to discover a solution to Golden State’s main scorers, because there isn’t one apparent right now

Golden State Warriors v San Antonio Spurs - Game Four Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

This isn’t going to exactly blow anyone’s mind, but I’m going to go ahead and say it: Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant are going to be a real problem for the San Antonio Spurs in this series.

The Warriors don’t have Stephen Curry, but the mismatches are effectively sending the Spurs’ defense scrambling as if we did.

The problem is two-fold. First of all, the Spurs’ defense just doesn’t have the personnel to adequately cover both Durant and Thompson. Without Kawhi Leonard, they are already inherently not in their ideal configuration. While they have a bevy of effective defenders in Danny Green, David Bertrans, and Kyle Anderson, none of them are elite enough to reliably shut down Durant or Thompson. Normally Leonard would take one of the Warriors’ main threats and Green the other. But without Leonard, they’ve been forced to reassign Green, and that’s forced lesser defenders onto Thompson.

Secondly, just from a raw talent perspective, there’s no one remotely near as talented on the Spurs - not at this stage in their careers anyways. Pau Gasol, Manu Ginonli, Rudy Gay, and Tony Parker all have solid instincts defensively, but at this point in their careers are finding it harder and harder to convince their bodies to move with the prerequisite lateral quickness anymore. Meaning pretty much everyone is going to need help - which further limits the solutions available.

Combined shooting

In Game One, Thompson made 11 of his 13 shots for 27 points; Durant chipped in an all around game with 24 points and seven assists.

Here’s the problem for the Spurs: they double teamed Durant fairly often in Game One and he pushed through it easily enough to give them pause. Meanwhile, Thompson was primarily left in single coverage. While it took him a while to get going, he eventually ended up playing one of the more efficient games in playoff history.

Even double-teamed for most of the night, Durant still managed to do enough damage to give the Spurs pause for reconsideration. Was his night poor enough to justify all the attention, or would coach Greg Popovich consider trying something new?

Which brings up my final point — the Spurs’ defensive options for either Durant or Thompson are limited; when you combine the two of them, it stretches even the stoutest defensive schemes to their breaking point.

Matchup nightmares and defensive coverage

While the damage Thompson did was efficient, it could have been much worse. This wasn’t the 60-point destruction that he’s capable of - but the series is still young and Thompson found his stride late in the game. San Antonio is probably real nervous about some of the defensive issues that were uncovered in Game One. We’ve talked a little about the Spurs’ matchup issues, but here’s the specific problem that the Spurs are running into without Kawhi Leonard: Danny Green is being used to cover Durant.

While this was somewhat effective in game one, the Spurs had to really scramble to make this coverage work. With Danny Green busy chasing Durant, Thompson was covered by an amalgamation of undersized guards and outmatched wings.

It’s already a well-established truth that Tony Parker isn’t a great cover for Thompson. Same now goes for Patty Mills. Both are just too small. Dejonte Murray has the height, but lacks the strength and defensive chops to manage Thompson around screens and off cuts all night.

We’ve posted this graphic before, but I’d like to take a more granular look at how the Spurs have chosen to defend the Warriors this year (keep in mind that most of this graphic is based on the presence of Steph Curry as well).

There’s a lot to visually unpack in this graphic. In general, you’ve got the Spurs defenders (by color) and their distribution of who they’ve defended - on a per possession basis. The thicker the line, the more often these guys are covering a certain player.

First, look at Durant, and then check out Kyle Anderson (in yellow). Based on the regular season, the bulk of his minutes were spent covering Durant. Kyle Anderson plays the second most minutes per game for the Spurs, behind LaMarcus Aldridge, so these are not an insignificant number of matchups we are seeing in the graphic.

But Anderson is no Durant-stopper. Your game plan simply cannot rely on Kyle Anderson outplaying Durant. Relying on him to shut down Durant in isolation is not the sort of mistake that a coach of Popovich’s caliber would make. So the Spurs throw double teams and help defenders which then opens up subsequent opportunities for the savvy Warriors’ passing attack.

I wouldn’t call him unplayable, but Anderson’s 11 minutes in game one were a sharp decline from his season average of 27 minutes or so per game. Due in no small part to the way Durant was able to serially abuse him on both ends of the court.

Danny Green is probably the Spurs best perimeter defender, so it makes sense that we would see him as the second most used on Durant. But if you take a moment to look at the box that represents Green, one thing is quickly apparent: he bears the chief responsibility for covering Thompson.

And this is the key problem that coach Popovich is going to have to resolve. Besides Green, which Spur can be trusted to chase Thompson around for the entire game?

My guess is that Rudy Gay will move into the starting lineup, or at least get used significantly more than the 22 minutes he logged on Saturday afternoon. While Popovich is unlikely to completely abandon Anderson or Mills or even Bertrans, it behooves him to make some sort of adjustment.

There’s a Kawhi Leonard-sized hole in the Spurs’ defensive scheme and personnel - and the Warriors are exactly the sort of team that is going to exploit it.