NBA playoffs: San Antonio Spurs vs. Golden State Warriors preview
San Antonio and Golden State may not share in some bitter, deep-seated rivalry, but this matchup -- featuring the new Western Conference favorite and most fiercely entertaining team of the postseason -- should easily compensate for its lack of narrative clout. The Warriors are fresh off a first-round upset of the Nuggets. The well-rested Spurs, now the front-runners to make the NBA Finals after Thunder guard Russell Westbrook's season-ending knee injury, remain the image of stoic dependability. This isn't a particularly even series in terms of the teams' profiles, but it promises to bring a combination of high-level play, calculated coaching and striking individual performance.
Golden State exploited Denver's perimeter defenders in the first round but won't find the same openings against a far more diligent San Antonio team. The Spurs match up so well that they won't have to run such aggressive (and desperate) traps at Stephen Curry, instead trusting Tony Parker, Danny Green and Cory Joseph to lock and trail behind the hottest shooter in the postseason. Curry, Jarrett Jack and Klay Thompson will still get their points, but only after working through multiple screens and hitting more challenging shots.
San Antonio's starting lineup outscored Golden State by 20 points per 100 possessions in their regular-season series, according to NBA.com. The Spurs accomplished the feat largely by holding the Warriors to 17.3 points under their regular-season scoring efficiency. San Antonio's level of preparation and execution were predictably impressive, as the Spurs' top defenders read Golden State's cuts, preempted off-ball screens and applied just enough perimeter pressure to chase shooters like Curry and Thompson inside the three-point arc and into the help. The Warriors attempted just 13.8 three-pointers per 48 minutes (compared with 19.9 on average this season) against the Spurs' primary lineup and converted only 30.3 percent. San Antonio may not defend the three-point line at an elite level overall, but the Spurs' best (and most-used) lineups have been able to take away that option from the Warriors pretty consistently this season.
On the other side of the ball, the Spurs are in a position to challenge Andrew Bogut's mobility. The Warriors' center did a fantastic job of clogging the paint against the Nuggets, but his usual pick-and-roll defense -- to hang back around the foul line and wait for the ball-handler to come to him -- won't be as effective against San Antonio's well-spaced offense. After coming around a high screen unencumbered, Parker should be able to stutter past Bogut in the paint, pull in extra defensive attention and/or create contact to earn free throws on a somewhat consistent basis. Manu Ginobili, on the other hand, would love nothing more than to take advantage of Bogut's defensive cushion by stepping behind a high screen and launching an open three-pointer.
Meanwhile, Bogut and the Warriors will also have to keep an eye on Tim Duncan as he pops out to the wing, or Tiago Splitter as he rolls to the hoop. Beyond that, San Antonio's offense is heavy with simultaneous action in pick-and-roll situations and otherwise, forcing the Warriors to keep tabs on a number of maneuvering pieces at once. That coverage is a significant challenge -- something that would seem to be too demanding (especially for a team that relies on Carl Landry and undersized, ill-equipped lineups) and too involved for Golden State's still-growing team defense.
Curry's shooting ability has the potential to stretch even an elite defense to its breaking point, and his supporting cast has rarely looked better this season. Those two factors are very much related. Although the Warriors collectively deserve credit for their impressive first-round upset, Curry applies so much consistent pressure with his catch-and-shoot potential that it affords his teammates a chance to attack a disjointed defense or better use their one-on-one advantages. Among those who benefit are Jack and Landry, both of whom are effective on their own but even more so when Curry's presence nags at the opponent's defensive rotations.
Jack will be of particular value in this series, as the Spurs are likely to leave open swaths of mid-range space in attempting to keep tabs on Golden State's shooters and simultaneously protect the rim. He may attack the hoop with blinders on, but Jack has done fine work as an accurate pull-up shooter and a sneaky driver in traffic, two skills that will be helpful in generating points when things inevitably get tight for the Warriors' offense. Landry, too, can connect on spot-up looks from that range, but he may be even more valuable as a post-up option against the Spurs' second-unit big men.
Additionally, Bogut has demonstrated his value as a David Lee surrogate, albeit without the scoring. He grabbed an astounding 21 rebounds (including seven offensive boards) against the Nuggets in the series-clinching Game 6 and facilitated Golden State's offense from the top of the floor throughout the first round. Against a team that rotates as efficiently as San Antonio, that kind of redirection will be essential. Having Lee available for big minutes in his unexpected return from a hip injury would obviously be preferred, but coach Mark Jackson can trust in Bogut to fulfill some of the same playmaking functions Lee would otherwise provide.
To be frank, though, all of those strengths won't likely be enough. Golden State's greatest chance of winning this series may lie in forcing San Antonio to go small. Lineups featuring rookie Harrison Barnes at power forward figured prominently into the small-ball turn of the Warriors' first-round series, but similarly structured Spurs lineups (such as those with Kawhi Leonard at power forward) have been rather unproductive in limited minutes this season. San Antonio's very clear preference is to have two big men on the court at all times. If the Warriors could somehow stretch the floor and apply pressure to make that arrangement unmanageable, they could potentially get a slight jump on this series by altering its framework.
Manu Ginobili. His good health has been a pleasant surprise for the Spurs (who didn't have him for nine of the last 10 regular-season games because of a hamstring injury) and helps make them an even more prolific offensive team. But if Ginobili's health or play were to waver, it would put even more pressure on Parker as the impetus of the Spurs' system, a turn that would narrow the gap between the teams.
Spurs in 6. San Antonio is a sophisticated, two-way team that has the defensive infrastructure to limit easy opportunities and the offensive mechanisms to counter a Golden State barrage. It's been a fun ride for Curry and the Warriors, but momentum alone won't be enough to beat an opponent this precise in its execution.