From Opening Night to a postseason elimination game, one of the two teams meeting in the Western Conference Finals will begin and end their season facing the same opponent, while the other advances to the fourth and final round of the playoffs. The conference finals that many predicted to take place last year has stumbled into existence 12 months later as the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs prepare for their first playoff battle since 2013. That 2013 match up concluded with the Spurs ousting a Warriors squad in 6 games, only to later lose a Game 7 in Miami. 2014 was San Antonio’s year to exact revenge by blinding Kevin Durant’s vision of a second chance in the Finals, and turning the defending champs into a laughing stock. It was their first title since 2007: LeBron was 22, Manu had hair, and Kawhi Leonard hadn’t even transferred to Martin Luther King High to play with Tony Snell and win California’s Mr. Basketball. Yet 7 years later, after several superteams had been constructed and changed the landscape of the league, Popovich and the Spurs managed to clown a team with an unbelievable top-heavy roster.
Since San Antonio was last crowned, the Warriors have clearly taken over the driver’s seat of the western conference winning a staggering 246 of 299 combined regular season and postseason games. Not only could the Spurs not reach last year’s WCF, they got beat, in large part, by a guy that joined the Warriors. 3 consecutive MVP’s and 4 members of 2016’s All-NBA class have made it easy to forget the Spurs being a fellow titan to the Dubs during the past two historic regular seasons.
Over the last 11 months, the Warriors & Spurs have played a combined 74 regular season home games. They are 73-1 in those 74 games.
— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) January 8, 2016
Most of all, the Warriors have had magnifying glasses on them for the better part of the last three seasons, and with the Durant signing, the number and size of the lenses has only increased. It has to be pointed out that Golden State’s superteam has gotten to maneuver on roads plowed by the likes of Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, and Cleveland teams of recent years that adjusted fan expectations of blessed rosters. But that doesn’t change the degree of focus it takes for such a team to take care of business in what always ultimately becomes an exhausting, both physically and mentally, run to receiving the Larry O’Brien trophy in June.
In the last round, I predicted James Harden and the Rockets’ offense would eventually outperform any adjustments Gregg Popovich could draw up, and that the way in which the Spurs’ athletic deficit cost them against the Thunder in 2016 could become a much more typical ending to their playoff runs. There are key factors to be considered concerning Harden and Houston (more on this soon), but the Spurs executed some fantastic strategy modifications to combat the team leading the league’s 3PA Parade. The Spurs utilized post scoring and the threat of offensive rebounding, alongside a showcase of their streaky wing depth to beat up and slow down the Rockets out of their preferences.
The Rockets are nothing like the Warriors. Sure they have a comparable cast of 3 point shooters adept to play in the modern era, but the Warriors offense is dynamic, and they can play lockdown defense. Golden State held a Utah team, doing their best Spurs impression, to 96 points per game while lighting up the Jazz’s Defensive Rating to over 13 points/100 possessions higher than their elite regular season mark. No team plays fast or small as good as Golden State, but slowing the game down means facing their stalking halfcourt defense. The Warriors are flexible, and thrive on impeccable execution that outlasts their opponents.
It all comes back to focus. With every passing possession seemingly more important, and the pressure of the moment allying onset fatigue, the chances of an unlikely winner creep in. From talent alone, the Thunder or Warriors easily could have been considered the best team of 2016, and I don’t need to make a 3-1 joke to point out their demise. As talented as the Warriors are, and evident by their collapse last year, they are their own worst enemy. One of the major factors that allowed Cleveland to topple Golden State last year was congesting the fluidity of the Warriors flowing off-ball offense by being highly physical. Rather than turning it into a wrestling match, the Spurs rely on a conservative defensive approach to avoid fouling. San Antonio unveiled an intricate switching scheme against the Warriors in the regular season last year, holding Golden State to just 79 points with Curry and Klay combining for a 2/19 night from behind the 3pt line. Switching can slow the game down by forcing opponents to take a detour and set up attacks for 1-on-1 mismatches. If San Antonio can succeed in converting Golden State’s offense into isolation basketball, it will take beating those mismatches and avoiding sloppy turnovers to overcome the periods of the game that the Warriors aren’t getting what they want; but it will also take recognizing that the Spurs are in control of the game at that point, and finding a way to get back on track will be key to reestablish their identity.
San Antonio is great at defying my expectations and finding ways to win. Pop consistently keeps tricks up his sleeve and doesn’t get discouraged by losses early in the series. Whether it was Simmons, Manu, Gasol, LaMarcus, Green, Murray or Mills, the 2nd Round series was just another example of the Spurs getting everything they needed at just the right time to win 4 games of basketball at the highest level. But unlike previous years when I had written them off, I don’t feel silly for picking their opponent. This Warriors team is simply too good on paper to pick against. Now that the Spurs won’t have James Harden and Ryan Anderson to exploit, and a less predictable offense to account for, I expect them to lose, again.
Prediction: Warriors in 6