Mar 29, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; Golden State Warriors power forward Draymond Green (23) looks to pass the ball as San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) defends during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
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The two best teams in the regular season will face off in the Western Conference Finals. The Warriors and Spurs have been here before, and will fight for a spot in the 2017 NBA Finals.
The Golden State Warriors have looked about as dominant as a team can look through the first two rounds of the Western Conference playoffs. They’ve won all eight of their games, and most of them weren’t even close. The San Antonio Spurs on the other hand, fought hard to beat an overmatched Memphis Grizzlies team, and a dangerous but flawed Houston Rockets.
The regular season games between the teams are rendered almost completely irrelevant, because of injuries, rest, and the fact that the Warriors were still figuring things out early on in the season. Take the first game between the teams for example.
It was the very first game of the season, and the Spurs won by 29 points. Almost as shocking as their 39-point win over Houston in Game 6, but not quite. The Warriors were playing their first game with Kevin Durant, after just winning 73 games and losing in one of the most dramatic NBA Finals of all time.
That game was the only time the two teams played at full strength all year, so it is difficult to take too much away from the Spurs winning the season series 2-1. So let’s break it down.
Clearly a mismatch, with a two-time MVP going up a against a career role player like Patty Mills. Steph Curry is a top-5 player in the league, and probably the best shooter of all time. He’s going to give Patty fits with or without the ball, and can get as hot as anyone in the league.
Mills is about an average defender at point guard, and even the best have trouble slowing down Steph. The best hope he has is to make Steph work on the other end. Mills is great at initiating the offense, darting through a few screens, and getting the ball back for an open three.
The Spurs will make Golden State defend for as much of the 24-second shot clock as possible, and Mills needs to hit the open shots he is given. The hope is that Curry will get tired chasing Patty around the court on that end. But with how Steph has played lately, it won’t be nearly enough to win the matchup.
Remember when Danny Green almost won Finals MVP in 2013 against the Heat? He broke the record for most three-pointers made in a Finals series by Game 3. Look at his highlights from that game:
That guy actually reminds me a lot of when Klay Thompson gets hot. He needs a few shots to get going, maybe a layup or two thrown in there somewhere, and then he’s unstoppable. Klay has had more of these heat checks of course, but the idea is the same.
Both teams play with great ball movement on offense, and when a guy gets hot like this, it doesn’t devolve into one-on-one play to get him shots. The team will keep moving the ball, and the guy with the hot hand will shoot wide open looks.
Green and Thompson are both very good defenders as well. Klay is a bit better as an on-the-ball, one-on-one stopper, while Green is one of the league’s best help defenders at the wing position. For the Spurs to make the series competitive, Green will need to knock down shots, and that isn’t always a guarantee.
The Warriors aren’t too concerned about Klay just yet, but he is having a rough playoffs, shooting just 40.7 percent from the field. If he can take better advantage of the open looks he’ll get, the Spurs are going to be in trouble.
Definitely the star-studded position in the series, both of these guys are their team’s most complete weapon. What makes the matchup even more interesting is that Leonard was healthier all year, and the one in the MVP conversation, but is now banged up. The team says he’s playing in Game 1, but it’s unclear how his ankle will hold up.
Durant, by contrast, had a scary knee injury midseason, but is now back and as comfortable as he’s looked all season. Every team that has to incorporate new stars is going to need time to jell, and it looks like the Warriors have done that.
Mar 29, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; Golden State Warriors small forward Kevin Durant (left) and JaVale McGee (1) cheer from the bench after a score against the San Antonio Spurs during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
As you can see, he’s about the same height as his seven-foot center JaVale McGee. Kawhi is one of the great defenders in recent NBA memory, but Durant towers over him. Durant is also one of the most unstoppable scorers in league history, hitting from the outside just as easily as the inside.
Leonard can hold his own on the offensive end, and was never playing better than these playoffs before the ankle injury. He still has the highest Player Efficiency Rating of anyone in the playoffs, at 32.2. After a career year, and an even better playoffs, he needs to be given the respect he deserves.
If he’s healthy, this is one matchup that the Spurs can capitalize on to counter one of Golden State’s superstars. With the Spurs’ coaching staff putting Kawhi in the most useful and productive spots for him to succeed, he will have a chance to match KD and his production.
This is where it gets fun. Aldridge just had a monster clutch performance in Game 6 against Houston. He was taking a lot of heat early in that series for coming up small against a team with nobody to guard him. But when they needed him most, he stepped up a gave us a reminder of what he’s capable of as a No. 1 option.
Green is one of the best defensive players in the NBA, a guy who can truly guard all five positions, and guard them well. He’s not a glue guy who fills in the blanks because he’s not great at anything specific; he’s a jack of all trades who can run the offense as a ball handler, set screens, roll to the rim and defend anyone.
If there’s one flaw in his game it’s that he’s streaky from the three-point line. Aldridge had a hard time running out to shooters against Houston, and at times, Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza knocked down open looks because of it. Green is not the shooter that either of those guys are, regardless of how hot he’s been lately.
Aldridge needs to keep this momentum going if he wants to outplay Green, and that’s going to be a tall task as the Warriors crank up the intensity.
Zaza Pachulia has looked a little out of place this season at times, and is the token traditional big man in the starting lineup. He’s a good but not great passer in the halfcourt, sets solid screens and cleans up missed shots. He’s a guy that doesn’t need or demand the ball.
But he’s going to struggle, especially one-on-one, against Pau Gasol. He ramped up the rebounding during the Houston series, and this one will be no different. The Warriors are quite a bit more physical than the Rockets, but the gameplan will be the same in that area. The Spurs are going to need to win the rebounding battle in this series.
Gasol can also stretch the floor like few bigs in the league, shooting a blistering 53.8 percent from downtown in the regular season. The Warriors are one of the few teams built to withstand that defensively, with size and speed everywhere, but when Zaza is on the court, expect to see Gasol drifting out for threes.
Any help that comes towards Gasol will result in swinging of the ball, and open looks for the Spurs. This matchup, more than any, will get the Spurs’ offense into a rhythm.
The Spurs once again had a dominant bench this season, as they do every year. The difference this year is that bench guys have had big roles in the playoffs. The injury to Tony Parker means that Patty Mills is now in the starting lineup, where he has performed admirably. Jonathon Simmons has stepped up recently in increased minutes, and David Lee has brought energy and rebounding.
The problem is that the Warriors, after all the cries about their lack of depth early in the season, have a bench that has been ferocious in the playoffs. Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, David West, and JaVale McGee (!!!!) have all been excellent throughout this run.
Livingston and West are both solid contributors who hold or increase leads while starters rest. Those guys are really valuable in a tight series, and not having them was perhaps Houston’s biggest downfall against the Spurs.
But McGee and Iguodala are something else entirely. Either of those two guys playing with the four stars in the starting lineup has created terrifying five-man units. The Warriors play a style that allows McGee to catch and finish with ease, and often uncontested. Iguodala gets wide open threes, which is an area he has worked hard to improve.
The Spurs’ bench goes a little bit deeper, but don’t expect to see bench-only lineups on the floor for Golden State. They will have at least one or two starters on the court at all times, so that the bench doesn’t need to carry them.
It’s hard to actually put a matchup here, because of the uncertainty surrounding Steve Kerr and the health of his back. Gregg Popovich has been doing this for longer than anyone, and with the toughest task ahead of him, he’ll have a chance to really prove he’s the best.
Kerr won Coach of the Year last year while coaching half the season from his home, so he can still have an impact on the series without being on the sidelines. Mike Brown, who is the nominal head coach right now, is going to have to make the in-game adjustments, but game to game, you can bet Kerr will be involved.
Pop just showed everyone that the longer a series goes on, the more he will exploit advantages, figure out the opponent’s weaknesses, and get the most out of his guys. The Spurs dictated the style of play in many of the games against Houston, and will try to do that with the Warriors as well.
The Warriors coaching staff is fantastic, and Kerr has created another model franchise to rival his old coach in Pop. It’s old school vs. new school, and it will be fascinating to see who can make the better tweaks to give their team the edge.
The Spurs’ best hope is that Kerr can’t coach directly on the sidelines, so Pop is able to handily win the battle against Mike Brown. But either way, Pop has the experience, guile and basketball knowledge to come out ahead of anyone in the league.
The one that will decide the series is the Aldridge-Green showdown. Green really only struggles defensively against guys exactly like Aldridge. He’s tall enough to shoot over him, bulky enough to bang with Green down low, and can stretch it out as the best jump shooting big man in the league not named Dirk.
Green will do the same to Aldridge on the other end, and the Warriors will try to get LaMarcus switched onto their elite scorers. Green is one of the best passers in the league, big man or not, and will find the smallest holes in the Spurs’ scheme. If he can also stay red hot from downtown, look out.
Green is also the driving force behind the team’s personality and fire. He talks the most trash, yells after big blocks, and gets the crowd going. If he’s out there doing all that, and playing at his elite level, he’s going to have a huge impact on the series.
But Aldridge has been picking it up lately as well, and his rebounding can be a factor. The threat of his shooting will be a real challenge for Green, as he’ll be helping and recovering like a maniac. If Kawhi and Durant can cancel each other out, this matchup is going to be the swing point of the series.
The Spurs will win if…
Aldridge and Kawhi play out of their minds, the role players knock down all their open shots, and the Warriors struggle to play their pace.
The Warriors will win if…
They continue to play the style that got them here, and make the Spurs keep up with their scoring.