As the Spurs obliterated the Thunder in Game 1 of their second round series, a Spurs vs. Warriors Western Conference Finals seemed more inevitable than ever. And with Stephen Curry dealing with multiple injuries throughout the postseason, the Spurs seemed that much scarier, for several good reasons.
- San Antonio won 67 games, a large enough total to finish as the No. 1 overall seed in all but six NBA seasons.
- Their defense was peerless throughout the regular season.
- They’ve been the league’s preeminent franchise for the last 17 seasons, capturing five titles along the way.
I spent all of Tuesday on the road, so I had to listen to Curry’s MVP press conference on the radio. In the process I caught a local radio host discussing whether the Warriors could regain their identity soon enough to get ready for the Spurs. Oklahoma City was an afterthought.
At the risk of getting repetitive, there are a few reasons why a lot of people feel this way.
- Russell Westbrook’s approval rating among NBA fans was never lower than it was after Game 3, when the Spurs won 100-96 and Westbrook shot 10-for-31 while committing three turnovers in the fourth quarter.
- The Spurs have one of the best head coaches ever, and Billy Donovan was coaching the Florida Gators a year ago.
- San Antonio is smart and steady, while Oklahoma City depends on Dion Waiters to sometimes throw inbound passes late in games.
So what to make of what happened Tuesday night, when the Thunder took a 3-2 series lead with their second win on the Spurs’ home court? The outcome was good news for the Warriors, in a sense, if you trust Vegas (the Spurs are 2-point favorites on the road tonight). If the Spurs extend their series to seven games, Golden State will get six days of rest before the conference finals begin.
Except the Thunder, in my humble opinion, present a tougher matchup for the Warriors than the almighty Spurs.
I held this opinion back for a bit, mostly because I’m a coward. I voiced it to Erik Malinowski — who’ll spend the rest of 2016 writing a book about the Warriors that I’m sure will be fantastic — seconds after the Warriors defeated Portland in Game 2. I also told him that I didn’t feel like tossing this “hot take” into the Twitter fire, mostly because I didn’t want to deal with loads of notifications telling me how stupid I am. I gained some much-needed courage (and yes, I realize how ridiculous I sound) after Oklahoma City’s Game 5 victory, and I still got several such replies. Such is (Twitter) life.
It’s probably better to explain my reasoning than just sending out one dumb tweet, so here goes.
Watching the games is different than looking at the head-to-head records.
Sure, the Spurs found a way to hand the Warriors their only loss against a 50-win team. A few things about that …
— Don’t put too much stock in the Spurs’ win over Golden State on March 19. The Warriors didn’t have Andre Iguodala or their top two centers, they played a tough game in Dallas the night before, and they were within one point of the well-rested, full strength Spurs in San Antonio with less than five minutes remaining in the game.
— The Warriors humiliated the Spurs the first time they played.
— The Warriors went 3-0 against the Thunder, but those games were far from easy.
- The Warriors won by 8 at home the first time they played, but that game was tied with 3:25 remaining.
- Golden State needed 46 points and the shot of the season from Curry to beat the Thunder in overtime, to end one of the best regular season games of all-time.
- The Warriors beat the Thunder by 15 in Oakland less than a week later, but that’s misleading — Oklahoma City had a 1-point lead heading into the fourth quarter and ran out of steam after losing a tough game to the Clippers the night before.
— The Warriors dealt San Antonio their first home loss in the penultimate game of the season, but some will point to Boris Diaw’s absence as a reason why. Yes, Diaw has given the Warriors problems over the years, but he was also there when the Warriors beat the Spurs by 30 on Jan. 25.
System vs. talent (i.e. matchups)?
While the Spurs are brilliantly coached, uber-disciplined and battle-tested, they’re also slow and don’t have a pure go-to option at the end of close games. They were also called out by their coach for not being tough enough after losing Game 4 to the Thunder.
Spurs vs. Warriors is a 90-90 matchup. The Spurs can’t outscore the Warriors, so as long as Golden State breaks 90, they have a 90% chance of victory. OK, that theory probably needs some work. Meanwhile …
— The Warriors have no answer for Kevin Durant. The Spurs do not have a similar unstoppable force.
— Even more worrisome than Durant could be the Thunder’s edge at center.
- Steven Adams is getting better by the minute. He’s young, spry, fearless and extremely physical. He’s the anti-Mason Plumlee, in other words.
- Serge Ibaka has had a down year, but he grabbed 20 rebounds when these teams played in Oklahoma City.
- Enes Kanter gave the Warriors problems this year, too.
With Andrew Bogut dealing with an adductor injury (an MRI still has to be performed, but it wouldn’t be all that surprising if they lost Bogut for the rest of the playoffs, knowing his history), and Festus Ezeli working his way back into the rotation, the Warriors could be stuck giving more than cursory minutes to Anderson Varejao against these guys. Mo Speights could provide some offensive punch, but the rebounding edge should be in Oklahoma City’s favor.
Which teams have given the Warriors the most problems? The ones with young, long, athletic frontcourts. The Spurs’ frontcourt isn’t young, incredibly large (unless Boban Marjanovic is playing), or athletic.
One thing the Warriors can point to is this: they know how to bottle up Westbrook. He shot 34.7% against Golden State this year, averaging a sad 1-for-6 on 3-pointers per game. That’s no small-sample-size fluke, either. He shot 32.9% while averaging 1.7-for-6.3 on threes (26.3%) last season. While Durant is the better player, Westbrook will have the ball in his hands more than anyone else on that team.
However, I’d take my chances against Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and the Spurs’ aging Big Three over an explosive seven-game series against a Thunder team that could be figuring out how to charge toward a championship at just the right time.