Even though the Eastern Conference semifinals haven't wrapped up yet, the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors are set to tip off the 2017 NBA Western Conference finals in Oakland on Sunday.
It's the first time Gregg Popovich's team will get a crack at the Warriors in the playoffs since Golden State started its climb to the top of the basketball heap.
Indeed, most people are expecting a lopsided affair to set up the inevitable Finals matchup between the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. But you have to play the games to know the real outcome.
Here are five big questions to get you ready for Spurs-Warriors.
Whom does Kawhi Leonard guard?
It's a simple question with a complicated answer.
The first instinct is to look to the regular season, but that doesn't give us much to work with. For one, Gregg Popovich is notorious for slow-playing his strategies against fellow title contenders until the playoffs. He'll give you a peak here and there at his real intentions, sure — just don't expect to learn anything all that useful.
More importantly, the Spurs know Leonard's most valuable skill is his versatility. Although San Antonio won't overreact to the hot hand, the Spurs will put Leonard on whichever player is having the biggest impact offensively, whether it's by moving the ball (Draymond Green), getting buckets (Klay Thompson), or striking the right balance between the two (Stephen Curry).
In fact, there might be possessions where Leonard switches onto all five Spurs players, especially when Golden State goes small.
Speaking of which ...
How will the Spurs react to the Warriors' small-ball lineups?
When Houston went small with Ryan Anderson at center in the second round, San Antonio went back-and-forth between two equally successful looks: either matching small-ball with small-ball and playing David Lee, Pau Gasol or LaMarcus Aldridge at center alongside four shooters/defenders, or bullying the Rockets with a bigger, traditional lineup.
Only one of those approaches seems likely to work against the Warriors, and it's not trying to beat them at their own game. Conventional wisdom would indicate you need to stay big, punish Golden State on the glass, and win the battle in the paint.
Here's the problem: San Antonio's bigs aren't traditional centers. Draymond Green has no problem defending guys like Lee, Gasol, or Aldridge. The latter two are much bigger than Green, but Gasol doesn't have the strength to exploit the mismatch, and Aldridge takes himself out of the play by constantly searching for a fadeaway jumper.
Instead, the key for the Spurs might be Jonathon Simmons. His defense on James Harden was a big part of San Antonio stealing a Game 6 win without Kawhi Leonard. Put Leonard and Simmons on the floor together with three other 3-and-D players, and the Spurs might frustrate the Warriors with a small, defense-first lineup.
Cary EdmondsonCary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Which LaMarcus Aldridge will show up?
If the Spurs get the Aldridge who led them to victory in Games 3 and 6, then they might stand a chance of making this series competitive.
But if they get the version who looked more like a statue than a basketball player for the rest of that Houston series, San Antonio fans are going to end up ripping all of their hair out before this series is over.
Like, all of it. From their scalps, to their arms, to their [REDACTED] .... it's all gone.
Save the people of Texas, LaMarcus. Play good basketball, and help them keep their hair.
Troy TaorminaTroy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
How much will the Warriors miss Steve Kerr?
Acting Warriors coach Mike Brown was asked this week if he's intimidated by the prospect of going up against Gregg Popovich in a conference finals. His response?
"I think I could beat Pop up. He's like 70."
So Brown doesn't appear intimidated. On the other hand, there's no doubt which team has the superior coach in this matchup (assuming Kerr is unable to coach this series).
The talent disparity between the Warriors and Spurs is probably so large that Kerr's absence won't matter. And if anything, Brown might keep Golden State playing loose, fun basketball as they've done so far in two series sweeps.
But should a game or two come down to the final possessions, expect quite a bit of scrutiny for Brown's rotations, his after-timeout plays, and his general tactical adjustments.
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Can the Spurs win a game?
I'm not one for predictions, but if forced to pick, I'm taking the Warriors in four.
San Antonio's advantage in the postseason is its system — and Golden State can match the Spurs on that front.
Otherwise, the Warriors are simply a better team from top-to-bottom. I wouldn't be surprised at all if San Antonio managed to win a Game 3 or 4 at home.
But if this series goes six games or more, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong for Golden State.