As rematch nears, San Antonio, Golden State show mutual respect
POSTED: Mar 18, 2016 10:11 AM ET
San Antonio is looking to avenge its 120-90 road loss to Golden State on Jan. 25.
To put an NBA spin on a familiar phrase: Keep your friends close and your biggest threat to a championship closer. This explains why the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors are cozy enough to examine each other's retinas if they wish.
They are the lords of the NBA season, locked atop the Western Conference and showing no signs of give or buckle. They're pushing 100 games over .500 combined, a stunning two-team crush on the rest of the league. The Warriors sped to the best start in league history and put distance between them and legendary teams of the past, and yet, not so much between them and this season's Spurs. This is akin to Usain Bolt breaking the world record in the 100 meters and needing a lean at the tape to beat the guy behind him.
Inside Access: Spurs vs. Warriors
An inside look at the long-awaited matchup between the two top teams in the league.
Both teams are cruising on their home court, are blessed with multiple All-Stars and smart support players, motivated by the best coaches in the game and no doubt feeling frisky about their chances of playing well into June.
A Warriors-Spurs matchup in the Western Conference finals could be the people's NBA Finals and a series that would have all the ingredients of being epic, although both teams are wise enough not to jump that far ahead. There are potential potholes before them, meaning the Warriors and Spurs must swerve away from injury and hope that a spoiler -- maybe Oklahoma City finally wakes up? -- won't pull a surprise and scribble graffiti on that scenario.
Make no mistake, though: Golden State and San Antonio are very much aware of each other, and why wouldn't they be? The West flag for the most part was flown in San Antonio until two Novembers ago when Stephen Curry and the Warriors grabbed the game by the throat and haven't let go. For so many seasons, the Spurs and Tim Duncan raised the bar. The young and dynasty-dreaming Warriors are setting their sights on clearing it.
"They're the standard," Curry said.
The only shame is these teams didn't see each other in the playoffs last spring, and have only met once this season, thus depriving us of meaningful games for 2015-16 when you weigh all the factors.
In that first meeting, a 30-point wipeout by the Warriors at Oracle Arena, Duncan sat out. In Saturday's anticipated contest in San Antonio (8:30 ET, ABC -- the second of a back-to-back for the Warriors), Andre Iguodala (as well as Festus Ezeli) will sit. They play twice in the final week, when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will surely keep his heavy-lifters super-glued to the bench. All that means we likely won't have an accurate snapshot of where the Warriors and Spurs stand when this season ends.
That doesn't mean they aren't sizing each other up anyway and checking off the boxes and scribbling notes to use for later, just in case. Because the Warriors and Spurs have had each other on the brain for a while.
Last month, Popovich revealed: "I've spent more time thinking about Golden State than I have any other team I've thought about my whole career."
We understand that we've got to go through San Antonio to achieve our goal.
– Warriors center Andrew Bogut
Ever since the Warriors became the blue-and-gold elephant they are now -- and admittedly, this just happened roughly 17 months ago -- there's one team they haven't quite figured out: the Spurs.
Golden State fears no one, but is spooked by a lopsided history against the Spurs. The Warriors haven't won a regular season game in San Antonio since Feb. 14, 1997, during the Spurs' season before Duncan was drafted. That's nearly two dismal decades. Granted, the Warriors were a doormat for huge chunks of that period with the likes of Adonal Foyle and Tony Delk trying to lead the Warriors to a win. But even in the Curry era, things haven't gone swimmingly.
Entering this season, the Warriors lost six out of their last seven regular-season games to the Spurs and lost 4-2 to them in the 2013 Western Conference semifinals.
Spurs vs. Warriors: 2013 Series Recap
The Spurs advanced to the Western Conference finals with a 4-2 series win over the Warriors.
Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers poked the eye of everyone in the Bay Area when he casually mentioned how the 2015 Warriors were lucky they didn't see the Clippers or Spurs on the road to the championship. Maybe the Warriors were right to feel the burn regarding the so-called rivalry with the Clippers, but Golden State is 3-0 against Los Angeles this season.
Rivers might've had a point about the Spurs.
"We understand that we've got to go through San Antonio to achieve our goal," said Warriors center Andrew Bogut.
The Warriors know the Spurs boast Popovich, who might make the NBA's Mount Rushmore of coaches when he's done. There's Kawhi Leonard, an unflappable two-way player. Aldridge started slowly (and disappeared at times in winter) but is shining on offense and as a rebounder. Plus, the Spurs once again boast the usual suspects that helped them extend their astonishing streak of 50-win seasons (excluding the lockout-shortened 1999-2000 season) to 18.
GameTime: LaMarcus Aldridge
Check out this feature on the Spurs' All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge.
Popovich has dumped loads of praise on the Warriors lately, famously saying they are "unsolvable" and "when I see them move the ball, I get envious." That's exactly the kind of respect others have paid to the Spurs in the past. Some might snicker and accuse Pop of playing mind games and strategically inflating the Warriors' ego, but there's probably a good chance he's just expressing what his eyes are telling him. The Warriors, in a sense, are a younger version of the Spurs with a coach (Steve Kerr) who studied under Popovich.
The Spurs don't have an answer against Curry -- who does? -- although they can toss quick guards like Parker and Patty Mills in his path to at least make him work. Another potential concern is Draymond Green, who limited Aldridge to 2-for-9 shooting and clearly had him shaken in the first Warriors-Spurs showdown. The Spurs are mainly Aldridge and Leonard's now, so that duo must be a factor in any game or series against the Warriors.
Then there's Duncan, who, by design, is averaging a career-low 25.1 minutes. His scoring (8.5 points per game), rebounding (5.5) and blocks (1.2) are all career-lows and he hasn't scored 20 points in a single game this season. But remember, at 39, Duncan was the best player on the floor in last spring's tremendous first-round series against the Clippers which included single-game points-and-rebound totals of 28 and 11 (a Game 1 loss), 22 and 14 (a Game 4 loss), then 21 and 11 (a Game 5 win) and, finally, 27 and 11 (in a Game 7 loss). He'll be 40 if/when the Spurs reach the West finals, yet is anxious for the playoffs to begin.
"It's starting to feel good," Duncan said. "I think we're all ready for it."
As for the Warriors, as long as they remain (as LeBron James put it) "the most healthy team I've ever seen", their biggest concern will be squashed. That would only leave Concern 1-A: Finding a way to solve the Spurs as they've done every other contender this season. Yes, the most amazing part of the Warriors' season goes deeper than them breaking the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' record for wins in a season. It's also how they've demolished every A-list team from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Thunder to the Clippers and in their lone game against the Spurs.
The Starters: Assessing Spurs-Warriors, Round 1
How much stock should we put in to the win? Would Tim Duncan have made a difference? What do the Spurs need to do to catch up to the Dubs?
Kerr and his players aren't putting tremendous stock in that win over the Spurs, at least not allowing it to fool them into mistaking the Spurs for the Philadelphia 76ers.
"The continuity and program they've built is amazing," Kerr said.
Kerr spent his last season as a player on the Spurs, who had Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili. Those three remain, along with reinforcements, and their relentless presence is keeping the Warriors from easing up on the gas pedal.
The Starters: Warriors Or Spurs Win It All?
Is there any hope for teams outside the Spurs and Warriors to take home Larry O'Brien?
The Spurs and Warriors are inseparable now, and if they keep up the pace and avoid the traps, the Western finals could be a series that, as you might imagine, is too close to call.
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