How They Got Here
• Golden State Warriors: Much has been expected of the Warriors this season, especially in these playoffs. Remarkably, they have exceeded those expectations in their first eight games. Golden State enters the conference finals 8-0, a perfect record that includes seven double-digit wins. Neither the Portland Trail Blazers nor Utah Jazz tested them, and it’s not clear anyone can before an NBA Finals rematch with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Western Conference semifinals sweep of the Jazz encapsulated much of what makes Golden State so formidable. Utah entered the series with apparent tactical advantages due to their size and the presence of star center Rudy Gobert, an elite rebounder and rim protector and capable scorer. Yet, what looked like the source of trouble on paper turned out to be no real concern.
The Warriors controlled the series from start to finish and never looked in danger. The wins in Games 1 and 2 were as professional as it gets, Game 3 was a tight contest that never really seemed like anything other than a case of an underdog playing better in its first home game of the series, and Game 4’s result was settled as soon as the Warriors opened with a tremendous first quarter.
Better yet, the form of that Game 3 win suggested the offseason addition of Kevin Durant really has made Golden State close to unbeatable. Little went their way — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson went cold from the field, the pace slowed, and the Jazz benefited from a raucous home crowd. But Durant took over with 38 points, proving this version of the Warriors can go one-on-one in the halfcourt and gut out a win. They have no obvious weaknesses, and it’s probably going to take several star-level performances to beat them. And by that we mean beat them in a game, not just a series.
• San Antonio Spurs: If the Spurs were a normal team, they probably would not have made it to the conference finals. A blowout loss to the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals seemed to portend a rough series full of matchup problems. Yet, San Antonio managed to overcome those obstacles and a season-ending injury to Tony Parker to eliminate Houston in six games. The final victory was the most impressive — a crushing 39-point blowout in which Kawhi Leonard didn’t even play due to an ankle injury. (He’ll reportedly be ready for Game 1.)
So how did the Spurs do it? Leonard was predictably fantastic and perhaps the biggest reason they bounced back from the series-opening loss. His ability to dominate at both ends helped San Antonio control tempo and slow down James Harden, who most certainly did not get the better of this matchup of MVP candidates after besting Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder in Round 1. When the Spurs controlled tempo and limited threes, they won. Those factors should prove just as meaningful against the Warriors.
Otherwise, San Antonio saw a number of players step up. LaMarcus Aldridge went from Game 1 goat to Game 6 hero, Dejounte Murray and Jonathon Simmons joined the rotation midway through the series and posted the team’s best plus-minus stats in the clincher, and Pau Gasol entered the starting lineup and made an impact as a rim protector. Yet, Manu Ginobili was the most unlikely hero of the series, taking over crunch time in Game 5 with Leonard stuck on the bench. The Spurs are in this position now because of a true team effort.
Whether that’s enough to compete with the Warriors remains to be seen. Leonard may not be 100 percent, and the absence of Parker could be a massive problem against Golden State’s dynamic backcourt. But San Antonio looked to have similar issues against Houston and surprised everyone, so it’s at least worth keeping your mind open to the possibility they’ll be OK. — Eric Freeman
The Spurs won two of the three matchups between these teams this season, but it’s hard to take anything from them. None of the trio was representative of what we’re likely to see in this series.
The first took place on opening night, Durant’s regular-season debut for the Warriors. The growing pains were clear — the offense didn’t flow and the Spurs cruised to a 129-100 blowout win in Oakland. If there’s anything to take from this game, it’s that Simmons came off the bench to score 20 points in a game-changing performance. His athleticism will likely help him see big minutes in this series.
The next matchup came more than four months later on March 11. The Spurs won again, 107-85, but this game will be remembered more for who didn’t play — Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. The Spurs sat their players due to injury, but all Warriors but Durant sat out to end a horrible stretch of the schedule in which they played eight games in all different cities over 13 days. More than any other, this game set off the controversy over teams resting big-name stars on national TV.
The last contest on March 29 in San Antonio at least resembled a real game between these teams — Durant was still out with his knee injury, but every other truly notable player saw action. The Warriors overcame an early 22-point deficit to control matters and leave town with a 110-98 win thanks to a combined 52 points from Thompson and Curry. Leonard struggled to the tune of 19 points on 20 shots, and it’s safe to say that won’t happen many times in a seven-game series.
Don’t spend too long thinking about any of these results. This series will be a different experience altogether. — Freeman
Likely Starting Lineups
You probably know the Warriors pretty well. Curry and Thompson are the backcourt, Durant and Green are the forwards, and Zaza Pachulia at least starts at center. The first four are All-NBA players. Zaza is not, but he rebounds pretty well and seems nice.
The real fifth Warrior is Iguodala, defensive wizard and likely Sixth Man of the Year finalist. Along with Green, he’s one of the players who makes the Warriors’ elite defense work — they just switch more smoothly when he’s out there.
There are plenty of other talented guys in reserve. One of them is JaVale McGee, who excelled against both the Blazers and Jazz and now joins Iguodala as one of the first players off the bench. If he proves less effective against the Spurs’ more disciplined lineups, then 2016 Spur David West should see time as an interior option.
In the backcourt, expect minutes from the rangy Shaun Livingston, scoring guard Ian Clark, and eventual Iguodala replacement Patrick McCaw. The 6-foot-7 Livingston will see the most time and is always a threat to shoot over shorter guards.
San Antonio’s lineups are less certain, in part because Popovich was forced to change up his plans against the Rockets. In the first round, the starting lineup consisted of Parker and Danny Green in the backcourt, Leonard on the wing, and Aldridge and David Lee as the bigs. Parker is now out for the playoffs, and Lee was replaced by Gasol after Game 1 of the last round. At the very least, the Spurs’ staff has decisions to make.
There’s a good chance Patty Mills will start in place of Parker, if only because that plan worked well to end the series against Houston. The rookie Murray could see that spot, too, although he performed so well off the bench in Game 6 that it’s hard to imagine him beginning the series anywhere else.
Neither Gasol nor Lee is a good matchup against the Warriors, but Popovich likes to play two big men, and one will have to start. However, don’t be surprised if Simmons sees significant time at power forward in small lineups with Aldridge as a center. He has had success against the Warriors before and is one of the few Spurs with the defensive chops to take on the likes of Durant and Thompson.
Ginobili will play a key role for San Antonio, as well. Expect him to facilitate the offense with or without Leonard on the court. Kawhi will have significant defensive responsibilities in this series and will need plenty of help at the offensive end. — Freeman
Matchups to Watch
• Kawhi Leonard vs. Kevin Durant: The Warriors were a bear before they acquired Durant this past summer, and the Spurs are uniquely equipped to neutralize the 2014 NBA MVP and turn Golden State into something closer to what they were last year — a 73-win juggernaut that was, by mere miracle, beatable in the playoffs. The NBA’s two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard has the length, quickness and ability to keep pace with Durant, and few players can make that claim.
Still, Durant has been effective opposite Leonard in the playoffs before, averaging 28.5 points on 50 percent shooting, with 6.7 rebounds and four assists, as his Thunder blew San Antonio’s doors off in a six-game second-round set last season. Tougher still, Kawhi has increased offensive responsibilities this year, and his defensive job against KD might also prove more difficult — since any help he might have gotten against a less potent Thunder team will now be off chasing Golden State’s other stars.
It’s no easy task to slow Durant, and if Leonard can’t do it, there’s a decent likelihood nobody will.
• Gregg Popovich vs. Mike Brown: Warriors head coach Steve Kerr underwent another back procedure last week in hopes of solving the issues that have kept him from the sidelines since Game 2 of Golden State’s second-round sweep. There’s been no indication he’s all that close to returning, at least for the start of the conference finals, and so assistant Mike Brown will continue to keep the seat warm.
The Warriors probably could’ve been coached by an empty chair through the first two rounds of the playoffs, because there’s been no adjustment necessary. That may well be the case against the Spurs, too, but San Antonio just blew out a 55-win Rockets team in an elimination game without Leonard, and there’s little doubt Popovich had something to do with it. There’s a reason Houston general manager Daryl Morey called San Antonio “arguably the best coached team ever” this week.
One of the few guarantees in this series is that Popovich will force the Warriors into an adjustment, whether by using his team’s size advantage in their favor or by disrupting the normal free flow of Golden State’s offense with Leonard and Danny Green on the wings, and how Brown responds will be his first real test. Brown served as an assistant under Popovich early in his coaching career from 2000-03, and the two coaches met once before under different circumstances in the NBA Finals, when the student had a much less talented Cavs team in 2007, and the teacher handed him his lunch in a sweep.
• Spurs bigs vs. the Warriors’ death lineup: The Spurs won 61 games with a big man rotation of Aldridge, Gasol, Lee and Dewayne Dedmon — not exactly a murderer’s row at this point in their careers. Dedmon has fallen down the depth chart, but San Antonio is outscoring opponents in the playoffs with every two-man combination of the other three — even against a Rockets team that could toss any combination of floor-stretching lineups at them. Aldridge and Gasol, in particular, both rose to the occasion when the Spurs needed more weapons in the absences of Parker and Leonard.
The Warriors have dispensed of mightier frontcourt combinations, if only because Draymond and Durant can both defend from the rim to the 3-point line. But the Spurs aren’t pretending to stretch the floor. They will be sure to pound the Warriors on the interior with Aldridge, Gasol and old friend Lee, because teams who have out-rebounded Golden State are the only ones who’ve stood a chance.
Still, Popovich may have no choice but to play smaller with Simmons if the Warriors do what they usually do, which is destroy opponents with the latest version of their death lineup: Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant and Green, who outscored foes by 23.9 points per 100 possessions during the regular season. The Spurs only saw that quintet for a total of nine minutes this year — and had success against it — but chasing those five around for a seven-game series is exponentially more difficult. — Ben Rohrbach
How the Warriors Can Win
The Warriors just need to play their game. They owned the NBA’s best offensive rating (113.2 points per 100 possessions) and second-best defensive rating (101.1 points allowed per 100 possessions) during the regular season, and they’ve somehow been even better on both ends of the floor in the playoffs. So long as the Warriors make their threes — a good bet with a trio of the league’s best shooters firing 23.3 per game between them — and don’t give up too many extra possessions on the offensive glass, a third straight trip to the NBA Finals will be waiting for them on the other side. — Rohrbach
How the Spurs Can Win
Beyond a superhuman effort from Leonard?
• Defend like hell: Golden State only ranked second in defensive rating because San Antonio ranked first — two-tenths of a point better per 100 possessions — so the Spurs will contest everything.
• Slow it down: Take care of the ball, score efficiently and limit transition opportunities, all with the hope Leonard, Green and Mills can keep Durant, Thompson and Curry in check in a half court setting.
• Rebound, rebound, rebound. The Warriors are a mortal 24-13 when they’re out-rebounded this year, including that season-opening loss to the Spurs. That’s still a .649 win percentage and little to hang your hat on, but at least it’s something.
Otherwise, just pray, and that still may not be enough against the Warriors. — Rohrbach
Best Reason to Watch
The Spurs are a historically great team in search of their second championship in two years, and they’re facing a historically great coach with five rings to his name. It will be a tactical fan’s dream, watching the NBA’s best defense trying to stop the league’s most prolific offense. And for the more casual viewer, there are a handful of future Hall of Famers working at various stages of their careers, including three of the game’s best five players — Durant, Curry and Leonard — all in their primes.
Even if the series doesn’t go long, you can bank on both teams playing beautiful basketball — with the Warriors capable of exploding on unforeseen runs and the Spurs passing up good shots for better ones. It will be a symphony of ball movement. These two teams have each won titles in the past three years, and yet they haven’t met in the playoffs since 2013, when the Spurs ousted the Warriors in six.
Plus, this could be it for Ginobili, and it’s always fun to see a legend make one final stand. — Rohrbach
Prediction: Warriors in 5 (Freeman) or 6 (Rohrbach).
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