The Western Conference Finals being today with a matchup that many of us anticipated heading into the season, not to mention at the beginning of the playoffs. The Spurs and the Warriors have basically been the best two teams in the Western Conference over the last three years and while this reunion was not quite as inevitable as the potential Cavs-Warriors III title-series, this Western Conference series felt like it was coming down the pipeline as well.
The Warriors have been simply dominant during this playoff run, where they have summarily dispatched the Portland Trailblazers and the Utah Jazz with clean sweeps. Now, these teams, especially the Trailblazers, are not necessarily up to fighting the Warriors, but the margin of victory in these games has been stupendous.
The Warriors have been defeating their opponents by an average of 16.5 points per game. While this is an all too hasty comparison, one of the best playoff teams in recent history, the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers that finished 15-1, had a margin of victory of 12.75 points per game.
It is entirely possible that this Warriors team will be historic. The Warriors finished with the best record in NBA history last year during the regular season, then went and added Kevin Durant to their team. They currently have two recent MVPs playing in their prime that are accompanied by two other All-NBA players in their prime. Also, Durant, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson are three of the best shooters in NBA history during an era when shooting, particularly threepoint shooting, is perhaps the most valuable skill one can have.
In a slight understatement, this makes things tough for the Spurs. Kawhi Leonard is reportedly able to play tonight, but if he is somewhat hobbled or has a nagging injury that forces him to miss any time, the Spurs are simply finished. If that happens, the Warriors are likely to go into the NBA finals with a 12-0 record. Even if Kawhi is playing that is a distinct possibility.
The Spurs are not built, at least at first glance, in a way that can handle the Warriors. Their bigs are too slow and bound to the center of the court, as Pau Gasol, David Lee, and LaMarcus Aldridge are not going to effectively chase anyone around the perimeter.
They play a half-court focused offense (ranked 27th in pace in the regular season), and take significantly fewer threes than the Warriors per game. In the Playoffs, the Spurs are only taking 25 threes per game (the Celtics are taking over 35) which is slightly up from their regular season numbers of 23.5. The Warriors are taking 30 per game in the playoffs.
Now, the Spurs are good for a reason. They had the best defensive net rating in the NBA regular season, although the Warriors ranked 2nd, and have a roster that can shapeshift and transform in order to best address the current team they are facing. As we saw in the Rockets series, the Spurs have a bevy of rangy wings that they can play if they want to go small. Some of these guys, like Jonathon Simmons, are not quite ready for the limelight, but could be forced into starring roles depending upon how the series goes.
The Spurs attacked the Rockets’ pick-and-roll system by dropping back and letting Harden drive in, modeling off of what the Thunder did to disrupt the Rockets’ game flow, but that is not going to work against the Warriors. You can’t give Steph Curry, nor Kevin Durant, that space.
The problem for the Spurs, assuming Kawhi can play, is that the obvious wrinkle to combat the Warriors is to put Kawhi on Draymond Green. This is essentially what the Cavs and Thunder did last year to force the Warriors to adjust. However, this seems impossible now that the Warriors have Durant, as the Warriors may be all too happy to let Kawhi play on Draymond. If that happens, the Warriors could just let Steph and Durant run pick-and-rolls among themselves all day long and feast upon whoever is unfortunate enough to be in their way.
This is one of the scariest parts about the Warriors this year. Even with the best defensive Wing in the league, on a team that ranked number one in defensive rating (for the 2nd year in a row), there is no discernible way to guard the Warriors. They are simply too talented.
However, this is Greg Popovich we are talking about, so it is not as if he came into this season not expecting this result. I’m sure that the Spurs have been planning for this series all year. But in the words of Mike Tyson, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Prediction: Warriors in 5. If Kawhi misses one game, Warriors sweep.