OAKLAND -- One play, one sequence, one twist or turn of an ankle can alter the course of basketball history.
The bounce of a ball this way instead of that way. The shot that flirts with the bottom of the net ... yet somehow rims out. Who knows when that pivotal play comes in a playoff game and, better yet, who is going to make said play in the heat of the moment.
The unknown and the unpredictable are bound to mingle when you put two 60-win teams together and dare them to beat each other.
That's what you get when the NBA's best offensive and defensive teams square off in the Western Conference finals in what should a data-driven bonanza for the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs -- two teams on the cutting edge of everything going on the league right now.
But after one wild opening game, it’s clear this dream matchup that NBA fans have been deprived of the past two seasons will not be waged on even ground.
The Spurs’ former NBA Finals MVPs are either out for the entire series (Tony Parker) or on the brink of not being able to perform at a high level (Kawhi Leonard), if at all. So it becomes a series of availability instead of just the ability to rise to the moment at hand.
What looked like a golden opportunity for the Spurs -- who led by 25 points early only to lose Leonard in the third quarter and the game during the 18-0 run that came after his departure -- turned out to be the wake up call the Warriors needed.
And leave it up to Draymond Green’s twisted but brilliant logic to explain the mood permeating the halls of Oracle Arena after Sunday’s Game 1 thriller.
“It was actually the perfect Game 1,” Green said. “You get punched in the mouth, but yet to can still get the win. It’s a bit tougher in Game 2 when you win easily, 20 or 30 points, and then you usually have a letdown. Now we can come out in Game 2 on edge knowing how good this team is. This team just came off something real, where they had to fight in order to take control of that series. Ours was lighter than that. To play a great team like that and get punched in the mouth, now we can get have our guard up and try to start a little better. That’ll be big for us.”
Sweeping through the first two rounds of the playoffs, which allows time for ample rest, left the Warriors unprepared for the energy and efficiency the Spurs brought to the floor for the first two-plus quarters of Game 1. Golden State's timing was off, its sense nowhere near sharp enough to counterpunch against Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge early.
The beauty of what the Spurs do is in their relentless execution of their offense, regardless of who is uniform. With or without Leonard in Game 2 Tuesday night (his status is up in the air pending MRI results on Monday), the Spurs will continue come at the Warriors in exactly the same way.
“We know what this team is about,” Kevin Durant said. “No matter who is on the court, they’re going to play hard every possession and keeps possessions alive.”
Yet, when Leonard exited Game 1 with 7:53 to play in the third quarter, the Warriors went on an 18-0 blitz to climb all the way out of that 25-point hole. Without Leonard to manufacture possessions, create for himself and others, it became clear that it does matter who is on the court for the Spurs.
Coach Gregg Popovich’s crew struggled to finish possessions, so you knew finishing the game would take a spectacular effort. The groove they were in early when Leonard and Aldridge were dominating simply vanished.
“Of course, it’s going to be tough,” Aldridge said of the Spurs’ challenge if Leonard is forced to miss any significant time. “He’s our leading scorer and our go-to-guy. But guys have to step up and try to take some of that load and try to be better out there.”
The Warriors insist they changed nothing about their approach when Leonard left the floor. But the results contradict that in every way. They turned up their defensive pressure and rattled the Spurs until the final buzzer, banking on their two superstar scorers (Stephen Curry and Durant combined for 74 points) down the stretch.
“We didn’t come back to the bench and say, ‘Kawhi’s out, let’s change up what we’ve been doing.’ Obviously, you’ve seen what this team did in Game 6 of the last series, so we knew they weren’t going to lay down," Durant said "They tend to do the same thing they always do. Move the ball, find the mismatches, offensive rebound ... They’ve got weapons and a team deep teamed they play together. They’ve got a really, really good system, so we just tried to stick with it every possession. We battled it our and were able to get it done.”
The Warriors are awake now, wide awake.
If they didn’t have it before, the Spurs now have their full attention -- with or without Leonard in the lineup.
“It’s always fun,” Green said. “It’s a challenge. This is the ultimate ... understand the little details of the game and do that. If you don’t, they make you pay. So it’s definitely fun playing against these guys. They’re one of the toughest challenges in the NBA.”
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