Yes, Warriors fans, the craziness isn’t over yet. Not by a long shot.
After defeating the Nuggets in what was correctly predicted as by far the most entertaining first round playoff series, the Warriors are now headed off to San Antonio to take on the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals. And considering it took the Warriors only their second playoff series victory in the last 22 years to get there, well, let’s just say the Dubs are now venturing out into relatively uncharted territory.
The playoffs can be a brutal lesson in reality, and the youthful Warriors will soon come to realize that, if they haven’t already. Shock the entire league and pull out the first round upset over the best home team in the Association, and what do you get? A big fat dose of San Antonio, led by what seems like an endless collection of all-world talents that just happen to have been playing within the same system for the better part of the last decade. Oh yea, and they have this guy by the name of Tim Duncan too. Like I said…brutal.
On paper, it would appear as if the Warriors are significant underdogs, but that isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world for them. After all, very few pundits even picked the Dubs to reach to the playoffs this season, and even less had them advancing past Denver. No, this is a team that thrives in the underdog position, that lives off of adversity, and savors the elation of proving doubters wrong. And that’s a trend that will need to continue, because make no mistake about it, going up against a perennial championship contender in San Antonio in a best-of-seven series will place the Warriors in more adverse situations than they’ve encountered since this team was originally formed.
It wouldn’t be a ridiculous claim to say that the Gregg Popovich-led Spurs are the closest thing to a machine that the league has ever witnessed. With their methodical ball-movement, unrelenting team defense, and seamless interchangeability of on-court personnel, the Spurs have cultivated a team persona and playing style that essentially remains the same regardless of who’s on the court. And not only has that style been incredibly successful in terms of amounting to unmatched win totals, it’s also increased their longevity as both a team and as individuals by not running their veterans into the ground due to their abundance of contributing role players. When you watch San Antonio play now and compare them to the Spurs teams of 10 years ago, it’s uncanny how little is different other than the names on the back of the jerseys, and a lot of that has to do with two individuals who have been there from the start.
When a franchise has the kind of prolonged success that the Spurs have achieved, the brunt of credit has to go to the top. And while their personnel department has undeniably been one of the most consistent and talented groups in the league over that span, they’re not the ones on the court winning all those games. No, more specifically, by the “top” I’m referring to Gregg Popovich, and that might be the most fitting term to identify him with, considering that’s precisely where he sits amongst many coaching leaderboards. And while one could go on and on about the accolades he’s garnered over his illustrious coaching career, it’s slightly misleading to view his success outside of the context of Tim Duncan. And that’s not to diminish his achievements whatsoever, but rather, to say that both of those guys are really that good, and their careers have just happened to overlap and complement one another.
Since the Spurs drafted Duncan with the first overall pick in the 1997 draft, they’ve won more games (888) and established a higher winning percentage (.703) than any NBA team in the last 16 years. Duncan and Popovich have also combined to win four NBA championships, the second most of any NBA team over that span. Both men will go down as all-time greats at their respective positions, and it’s truly remarkable to see what they’re continually able to accomplish despite the fact that the league is a much different animal today than it was 15 years ago. But if you think that either future Hall-of-Famer has quenched their insatiable thirst for another championship, you’d be quite wrong. And if Duncan’s play this season is any indication, that thirst is as dire as ever.
It’s hard to say that the “Big Fundamental” has had a bit of a renaissance this season since he never really fell off in the first place, but there have been occasional glimpses at the spry and do-it-all Duncan of his early years. Playing in 69 regular season games at age 36, Duncan averaged more minutes (30.1), a higher field goal percentage (.502), more points (17.8), more rebounds (9.9) and more assists (2.7) than he has in any season since 2009. Also, his free throw shooting percentage of 81.7 percent is by far the highest of his immaculate career, and his 2.7 blocks per game are the second-most he’s ever averaged over the course of an entire season. You’d think a top-15 player of all-time might one day stop improving, but that’s precisely why he is the player he’s become. He’s never been the flashiest guy on the court, but he affects the game in more ways than even an advanced fan can appreciate, and he’s one of the primary reasons why many expect the Spurs to advance to yet another NBA Finals. But then again, he isn’t doing this alone. That just wouldn’t be the Spurs’ way.
While Duncan might be the most underrated player of this generation, his point guard Tony Parker might be the most underrated in the game today. With apologies to Chris Paul, there is no better guard at utilizing his dribble penetration to get into the key and make plays for himself and his teammates than Parker. None. He plays at a tremendous up-tempo speed which wears out the opposition as they are forced to follow him around the court the entire game. And if the defense slips up and leaves him open for a brief moment, well, they might as well start heading back down the court, because the ball is already through the hoop. It's basically a guarantee that there will be multiple “How the heck did he do that?” moments in this series, and chances are, Parker will be right the center of most of them. And when it’s not him, Manu Ginobli isn’t a bad bet either.
The crafty Argentinean lefty has made a living converting tough and-one’s on drives through the paint, and his ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter really puts the opposition in a tough spot. Guard too close and he’ll drive right by you with some deft footwork. Give too much space and he’ll drain one in your eye. On almost any other team, Ginobli would get the publicity and attention he rightfully deserves, but on this Spurs team, he’s just another one of the many weapons that make them such a formidable opponent for anyone. And now the Warriors must prove that they are equal to the task, or they’ll join the long list of teams the Spurs have eliminated in their tenure of dominance.
So how can the Warriors do it? How will they ever manage to overcome a San Antonio team that has all the advantages, all the future Hall-of-Famers, and all checks by their name? The truth is, there is no single method to get it done. Much like their first round series with the Nuggets, it’s going to take a team-wide effort and, frankly, an over-performance from key players in order to take the Dubs to heights they haven’t reached since 1976. Although it will take their best stretch of extended play yet, a trip to the Western Conference finals isn’t out of the question for the Warriors.
With that, here are the three biggest keys to the series, which will go a long way in determining whether or not Golden State can keep their magical playoff run going into the next round.
1. Ending the Streak
One way or another, the Warriors are going to have to win a game in San Antonio if they’re going to advance. On the surface, that is a plainly obvious fact, but when you consider that the Warriors haven’t won in San Antonio since 1997, the challenge gains added significance. In case you’re wondering, that’s 29-straight losses to the Spurs on their home floor, including two more this past season. Now, granted, the fact that Duncan has never lost at home to the Warriors in his entire career has very little to do with this particular Warriors team. This is a new collection of players and a much more potent Warriors squad than teams of recent years, and they’ve given indications that the Spurs dominance over them in San Antonio could be coming to an end one day soon. For instance, although the Warriors have yet to win a game in San Antonio under Mark Jackson, they’ve all been considerably closer games than the predictable blowouts of the past. Dating back to last season, the first two losses by the Jackson-led Warriors were by single digits (six and seven), marking the first time the Dubs even managed to post back-to-back single digit defeats in San Antonio since the second and third games of the streak on April 4th, 1998 and April 5th, 1999. And while the ultimate goal certainly should be to accomplish more than not getting blown out on the road, progress is progress. As evidenced by their Game 2 victory on the road in the first round, the Warriors were undaunted by Denver’s league-best home record, and they understand that the past has no effect on the games to be played in this series. That said, a win in San Antonio would be a gigantic lift for the entire franchise, and there's not a more appropriate time to get over the hump than in the Warriors most promising playoff run since before the streak even began. It certainly won’t be easy, but it is absolutely necessary, and in order for the Warriors to get it done, it might take a special performance from their best player.
2. Point Guard Matchup
Stephen Curry had his coming-out party in the first round, and has now rightfully taken his position amongst the premier point guards in the game today. The problem for Curry and the Warriors is, Tony Parker probably invited him into the room. One of the premiere positional matchups in the second round features the two point guards. Both players have proven that they are capable of putting their team on their back with some thoroughly spectacular displays of skill and athleticism, and it is likely that the winner of this individual matchup will also be headed on to the Western Conference finals. That’s how important both players are to their teams, and adds further drama to what is sure to be a back-and-forth sideshow of one-upsmanship. For the Warriors, it’s vital that Curry continues to raise his level of play to match the situation. His tear-jerking beauty of a shot is the Warriors’ ultimate ace-in-the-hole, and it will need to continue to fall in order to force San Antonio’s defense out of their comfort zone. He’ll also need to continue facilitating the offense and put his teammates in positions to be effective, which he excelled at in Round 1 after leading all players in assists. Parker, on the other hand, will attempt to do what he does best, which is penetrate, penetrate again, and penetrate some more. If he can force the Warriors defense to collapse toward the paint to respect his driving ability, it will create open shots for his teammates on the perimeter, who are more than capable of putting the ball in the basket. Although it’s likely that neither player will draw the primary defensive responsibility on the other, in no way does that mean that their competition won’t be direct. For many years to come, there will be debates about which player is the better point guard. Whoever comes out the victor in this series could very well settle the argument.
After committing a groan-inducing six turnovers in the final 1:37 of their Game 6 near-meltdown clincher against the Nuggets, let’s hope the Warriors got that out of their system. Because if they haven’t, well this could be over in a hurry. San Antonio is too experienced and too good to allow the Warriors to get away with that many egregious mistakes, and they will surely steal a game or two if the Dubs allow them an opportunity with some sloppy play. And while the Spurs don’t necessarily play the same kind of hounding, pressure defense that the Warriors experienced against the Nuggets, they know how to force their opponent into low-percentage looks and capitalize when they cough up the ball. As much of an underdog as they are, the Warriors absolutely must value each and every possession they are afforded in this series, and avoid giving San Antonio easy buckets. They’re already tough enough to beat as it is, and the Warriors certainly don’t need to make them any more effective.
On one hand, the Warriors can be satisfied having reached a point that most thought they never had a chance of sniffing. But on the other, there comes a time when a franchise hits a tipping point, and conclusively turns the corner from promising upstart to genuine contender. This series could very well be that tipping point. The Spurs represent everything that the Warriors, as well as pretty much every other franchise, have hoped to attain, and now they have the opportunity to let their actions speak for themselves. There is no doubt this is a different and better Warriors team than they’ve had in quite some time, and they’ll find out just how good they are against a Spurs team that will push and challenge them at every step along the way.
So here we are again, wondering if the Warriors have what it takes to prove the world wrong. It’s been a wild ride up to this point, and it’s not over yet.
So get ready people. The show goes on.