For those looking to throw cold water on the domination that the Warriors have shown in the Western Conference the last two-plus years, their biggest argument is what we’re about to see, finally: the Golden State Warriors playing against coach Gregg Popovich and his San Antonio Spurs.
In their back-to-back trips to The NBA Finals, the Warriors along the way managed to avoid the Spurs. In 2014-15, the Spurs lost an epic seven-game, first-round series against the LA Clippers and didn’t get Golden State. Last season, the Spurs were tripped up by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the West semifinals, in another terrific series, and were denied another chance to meet the Warriors.
The Spurs are fresh off eliminating the Rockets and did so rather impressively (winning by 39) while Kawhi Leonard sat out the clincher. During this run of Warriors dominance, the Spurs hold a 6-4 advantage in the regular season (whipping the Warriors in Oakland by 29 in the ’16-17 season opener), although that number is skewed because a handful of those games were played when teams were missing key players, either from injury or rest. Still, it demonstrates why San Antonio is the biggest threat in the West to the Warriors, and why the Warriors were perhaps a bit fortunate to avoid the Spurs until now.
That said, would it have made a difference?
The Warriors could also be blessed with the good fortunate of getting the Spurs at less than full strength. Tony Parker is done for the playoffs and Leonard might not be 100 percent by Game 1, given the ankle sprain that kept him out of Game 6 in Houston. This would follow a pattern where the Warriors didn’t see Jusuf Nurkic in the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers and George Hill for two games in the West semis against the Utah Jazz.
But, Golden State remains loaded and who is healthy or not for San Antonio not matter -- especially if Draymond Green keeps up his level of play.
Green is playing perhaps the best playoff basketball of his career and is averaging 14.9 points per game, shooting 51.2 percent on 3-pointers and adding in 9.1 rebounds, 7.3 assists, two steals and 2.6 blocks per game. He appears to be a demon searching for redemption of sorts and if that's the fuel that energized him against the Blazers and Jazz, so be it, say the Warriors.
3 quick questions and answers
- How effective will Kawhi Leonard be? This is the No. 1 issue ... at least heading into Game 1. It’s not about whether Leonard, with four days rest, will be good to go on his sprained ankle. Can he play at 100 percent? He’ll need to be, given how much he means to the Spurs. Leonard will see plenty of Kevin Durant on the defensive end, and San Antonio will need 20-plus points a game because the Warriors’ defense through the playoffs has been sterling. If not, then a handful of role players will be asked to share the load and that might be uncomfortable for them.
- Will this be the series where the Warriors miss coach Steve Kerr’s presence? The gut-feeling answer is a resounding “no.” The players have thrown their support squarely behind acting coach Mike Brown (a former Spurs assistant), with Green making a point to embrace Brown after every game so far. Following the Utah series, Curry said Brown’s tweaking of Kerr’s system has gone without a glitch. That said, until there’s adversity or a loss, which the Warriors haven’t experienced yet, we don’t know how they’ll respond to Brown. Plus, Brown will have to match wits against Popovich -- no easy task there.
- Can Klay Thompson recapture his touch? Golden State managed to get this far despite so-so playoff shooting (40.7 percent overall, 36.2 3-point percentage) from him so far. A good many of those shots were open looks and he didn't face much of a perimeter defensive presence in either Warriors series to date. The Warriors managed to win anyway because Curry and Durant picked up the slack, but how much longer can that happen? In this series, Thompson will see Danny Green, who is a very good defender and, like Thompson, a designated shooter. Maybe not this round, but definitely by The NBA Finals (if they make it that far), the Warriors could use what Thompson does best.
Number to Know
51.2% -- No player has shot as well on as many attempts from 3-point range in the playoffs than Green, who is 21-for-41 (51.2 percent), fourth best among players with at least 25 attempts, from beyond the arc. The Warriors had an effective field goal percentage of 56.3 percent in the regular season, the highest mark in NBA history. And that was with Green shooting just 42 percent from the field and 31 percent from 3-point range. Curry, Durant and Thompson are three of the best shooters in the league, and the Golden State offense functions just fine with Green as a distributor. But if Green is making shots as well, the Warriors become that much more difficult to defend. The Spurs had the league's No. 1 defense in the regular season and only one team held the Warriors to fewer points per 100 possessions than San Antonio did in its three games. But Durant missed two of those games and Green wasn't much of a threat from the perimeter. If he continues to shoot as well as he did in the first two rounds, it will be a pick-your-poison scenario for the Spurs' defense. -- John Schuhmann
Making the pick
In the 2016 Western Conference finals, the Warriors fell behind Oklahoma City 3-1 and looked woozy. Then Thompson caught fire in Game 6 and Golden State finished the job in Game 7. That was the perhaps the only time the Warriors have been challenged in the West over the last two-plus postseasons, and they’re making it look even easier now. Popovich and Leonard are by far the best player-coach combo the Warriors have faced so far in the playoffs. Yet with such an obvious talent gap between the teams, the big question in this series is whether the Spurs can avoid the same quick fate as the Blazers and Jazz did. Warriors in 5.
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