The San Antonio Spurs have stolen two games in their series against the Golden State Warriors. It is uncomfortable to look at it this way because the Spurs are this dynastic, monolithic hot-air balloon that has hung over the NBA for most of the last two decades, but it is the truth.
The No. 6 seed Golden State Warriors, mostly without their only All-Star (forward David Lee), are better than the second-seeded Spurs right now. They weren’t during the regular season, and they might not be next week, but for the first four games of this Western Conference semifinals series the Warriors have been better.
They outplayed the Spurs in Games 1 and 2 (blowing Game 1), then gave away a home game in Game 3 and found themselves down 2-1 to a team they have every reason beating, and then beat that team 97-87 Saturday in Oakland to tie the series.
This is not to say the Spurs are not awesome. The Spurs are awesome. The Spurs won 58 regular-season games because they have the best power forward of all time having a turn-back-the-clock season, because they have one of the best point guards in the NBA and because they have the best coach in the NBA. The Spurs have trust and experience and chemistry and talent, and they won 58 games because the they know how to not lose to Detroit on a night when Duncan isn’t playing and the Pistons have a hot quarter. They know how to show up in Houston in January and let the Rockets have their fun for three quarters before closing it out like a bouncer kicking everybody out of the bar.
But that thing they have – whatever it is – matters less in the playoffs.
Regular-season games are not contested at the same — how to say this – level of enthusiasm as playoff games. It has been presumed for years now that the Spurs were all ripened up and ready to be picked off the tree by some rambunctious group of noobs who didn’t know they weren’t supposed to beat the Spurs. Two years ago the Memphis Grizzlies took out the Spurs in six games in the first round, and it felt like a eulogy.
But they came back the next year and won their division, and then won it again this year. Dallas got old, Houston got young and the Spurs didn’t get anything. They just stayed good.
But it has to end. It has to end. It has to end.
You can’t take Game 3 from the Spurs. They just straight-up rolled into Oakland and won the game. But it was the only moment of this series in which the Spurs have appeared to be the better team. If they had been playing in shirts and skins this whole time, you would have assumed the team with those two sharpshooters was the favorite and the team with the bald guy was the scrappy underdog.
Granted, subverting these kinds of assumptions has been the Spurs’ racket for most of the time they have been the Spurs as we know them. They have never looked like the best team. They have never dazzled. They have had this ability to win a game and leave you thinking, “Now how in the heck did they do that?”
But they lost Game 4 because Golden State’s fourth-best player, rookie Harrison Barnes, outplayed the Spurs’ Hall of Famer. Barnes had 26 points and 10 rebounds in 51 minutes. Duncan put up 19 points and 15 rebounds, which is not bad for a 37-year-old man until you examine it more closely.
Duncan at this point is still a power forward, but he’s a jump-shooting power forward. He’s that way because it allows him to continue to play a lot of minutes, because it prolongs his incredible career and because he’s a good shooter. But, hey, there’s a reason that from the first time you first lace up your hightops the big kids are the ones playing on the block, and Saturday was a good example for why. Duncan went 7 for 22 Saturday, effectively transforming himself, on the offensive end, into an inefficient shooting guard.
Duncan to this point has had an excellent series, but if San Antonio’s superstar is playing a “either the shots fall or they don’t” kind of game, then what does San Antonio really have over Golden State? The Warriors are playing that way, too, but their best player made five 3s on Saturday.
The series is tied, even though it shouldn’t be. Normally that favors the underdog, if we can figure out who that is.