OAKLAND, CALIF. — It is generally accepted that the Warriors will perspire some, feel a degree of burn in their lungs, receive an urgency slap in the face and get pushed toward the edge of their defending championship throne once they play a team from Texas.
Just not this team from Texas.
No, not the Spurs, at least that’s what the hunch and the outset of this first-round playoff series says. Common sense, too, wants to chime in and declare the Spurs without Kawhi Leonard are just standing in the way, albeit proudly, of the Warriors’ path to greater things in the post-season.
And so, the long and antsy wait for the anticipated and projected Warriors vs. Houston Rockets showdown in the West began in earnest Saturday when the Warriors breezed from jump ball to buzzer against San Antonio, and also torpedoed the notion that they’re somehow vulnerable (at least for now).
The playoff tipoff was all about the Warriors re-establishing their muscle flex and their defense and most importantly, their aura, even with Steph Curry still out and ailing, because the rest of the NBA was watching. That’s what a 113-92 wipeout Game 1 win at Oracle Arena accomplished, if nothing else. The combination of the Spurs being overmatched and the Warriors needing to put on a more menacing face than what they showed the last month of the regular season delivered the predictable result: A smackdown.
Or, as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich put it: “Got our ass kicked.”
Too much Kevin Durant, the sneaky elevation of Andre Iguodala to the starting point guard spot, a JaVale McGee sighting and Klay Thompson getting swishy was exactly what the Warriors needed and received. Seriously, though: Anything less would’ve been a big surprise.
The Warriors couldn’t afford to stay locked into the season-ending fog that turned coach Steve Kerr’s hair a lighter shade of gray and created the perception of a fat, too-satisfied winner of two championships in three years. Most likely, they were merely victims of human nature: While going 7-10 down the stretch, the Warriors simply grew bored with the meaningless late season, especially once Curry hurt his knee on March 23. Seriously, what was left to accomplish, other than to stay healthy? This team was created and molded for the sole purpose of winning in June, not for placing importance on, say, drop-kicking the Sacramento Kings on April Fools.
“We’re a championship ballclub and we know what it takes to win this time of year,” said Draymond Green, applying the perspective. “You heard, 'The Warriors lost it, they’re not together, they’re not the same team without Steph, blase, blase, blase, blah blah blah.' Well, we know what we’re capable of. There have been series where we’ve won without Kevin, without myself, without our head coach. A lot of people forgot.”
In case you’re one of the people Draymond was referring to, here’s a refresher course, courtesy of Game 1: Durant is very long and tough to defend, Thompson usually doesn’t miss when he has three feet of separation from his defender, Iggy always earns his fat paycheck in springtime, and as for McGee?
“He’s very tall,” said Kerr.
Actually, Kerr wasn’t purposely trying to troll his starting center, just stating the obvious when it comes to defending Spurs leading scorer LaMarcus Aldridge. McGee brings four more inches and therefore made it tough for Aldridge, who managed only 14 points and was mainly a ghost.
With Aldridge on lockdown, the Warriors’ D had accomplished its main mission, because the Spurs lack a secondary source of punch. What, is Rudy Gay going to turn back the clock? Manu Ginobili? Tony Parker? Because that’s what needs to happen for San Antonio. Without it, well, unfortunately for the Spurs, Kawhi wasn’t limping through that door Sunday.
What irritated Kerr was how the Warriors dialed down their defensive intensity in the weeks leading into the playoffs. They spotted 126 points each to the Pelicans and Pacers, and in the season final did a complete no-show, getting spanked by 40 courtesy of Utah. Remember, the Warriors constantly ranked among the better defensive teams during their multiple runs to the NBA Finals. As coaches tend to do in these matters, Kerr jeopardized his vocal chords a few times while trying to get the message across in the disinterested locker room.
But deep down, did anyone buy the notion of the Warriors suddenly forgetting how to play defense? With the second-best record in the West secured, and first place conceded to Houston, weren’t they just tapping their toes until the first round? Is that such a crime? Wouldn’t that be understandable, and wise on some levels, given the risk of something bad happening to a hamstring?
Anyway, Kerr barely uncrossed his legs on the bench Sunday; no need to scold a team that held the Spurs to 40 percent shooting and claimed the rebounding edge by 21 and never felt threatened.
“We finally got back to defending,” said Kerr.
He made sure of that, by inserting Iguodala, his best all-around defender, into the starting lineup and also using McGee extensively instead of Zaza Pachulia. Iggy spread his limbs all over the floor, guarding bigs and smalls, switching on the screen and generally being a pest to the other team, as he generally is this time of year.
“I just wanted to put our best defensive lineup on the floor from the beginning,” he explained. “The last month or so our defense had been subpar. You can’t win in this league unless you defend. You could feel the intensity right from the start. We set a good tone.”
To be fair, the awakening of the Warriors’ defense will receive a more accurate measure if and when they advance beyond the Spurs and face, for example, the Blazers with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and of course the turbocharged Rockets with James Harden and Chris Paul and all those three-point slingers. But until then, wrapping up the Spurs will serve as necessary preparation.
Less worry was the Warriors on the other end of the floor, where Durant assumed the lead and took 17 shots, scoring 24 points. More efficient was Thompson, who missed only twice in 13 shots and finished with 27 points. All of this was necessary with Curry not expected back for the first round; he just received the green light to press the accelerator during rehab and begin lateral movements.
If the Warriors, a top-10 team in both offensive and defensive efficiency, continue to get this kind of killer balance, there’ll be some long nights upcoming for the Spurs and a quick series as well.
“We were not as ready to face a team like them,” said Ginobili. “They were much better than us. Klay got away from us many times. Overall, they were so much better in every aspect that we had no shot. We’ve got to regroup, feel hurt and desperate, got to be smarter … We understand we’re not favorites. We’re underdogs. To get a win here we’ve got to overachieve. We got to do better than we can.”
It’s too bad that the Kawhi Situation continues to follow the Spurs like a dark cloud. He remains stymied by a quad injury that apparently hasn’t healed enough for his liking. The Spurs with Kawhi and the Warriors without Curry would tip the scales in this series toward being somewhat level, or at least invite some suspense. Without Kawhi, the Spurs are shooting spitballs at a tank. Guts and hard work and good coaching can only go so far against the suddenly-refocused and playoff-locked Warriors.
So, yes, the Warriors set out to re-introduce themselves and did so Sunday.
“We want to make a statement in Game 2 as well,” said Thompson. “We hobbled to the playoffs but we know how good we are and what it takes in the post season to win. When our intensity and focus are high, we’re tough to beat.”
Well, tough for one team in Texas. We’ll see about the other soon enough.
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