OAKLAND, Calif. — There was no give and take, no push and pull, and no nip and tuck in the first, long-awaited meeting between the NBA’s two best teams, just a beating so one-sided and so thorough that Gregg Popovich was left with nothing better to do than dryly joke about his job security.
“We almost got ‘em,” the league’s longest-tenured coach cracked after the Spurs’ worst loss in nearly three years. “I’m just glad my general manager wasn’t in the locker room, because it might have gotten me fired.”
One week after the Warriors helped send David Blatt to the unemployment line with a 34-point drubbing of the Cavaliers in Cleveland, the defending champs were back at it again, deconstructing the Spurs 120–90 at Oracle on Monday. Yes, Tim Duncan was missing in action with a sore knee, but his absence was hardly worthy of an asterisk after such a commanding performance by the Warriors.
As fascinating as it was to watch Golden State pick apart an exceptional opponent, this contest was uncomplicated, mostly lacking the intrigue of intricacies. The Warriors won every key matchup, they presented problems that the Spurs couldn’t solve and they neutralized many of their opponent’s supposed advantages.
“In every facet of the game, it was men and boys,” Popovich lamented, on multiple occasions, before cutting short his post-game press conference.
Quickly, let’s run down the facets, starting with the Most Valuable Facet himself, Stephen Curry. The reigning MVP and the next MVP dropped in a game-high 37 points without even playing in the fourth quarter, shaking every defensive look that Popovich threw at him. Tony Parker? He might as well have been invisible, as Curry glided around him with ease. Kawhi Leonard? Curry spun the reigning Defensive Player of the Year around in a full circle without even holding the ball. Jonathon Simmons? San Antonio’s second-string rookie tried to pressure and body up on Curry near midcourt during the third quarter, only to lose him on multiple occasions.
As it has night after night during Golden State’s 41–4 start, Curry’s marksmanship helped suck San Antonio’s league-leading defense away from the paint, opening plenty of opportunities in the basket area. Without Duncan to defend the rim, the Spurs conceded 52 points in the paint, as Draymond Green rifled passes to cutter after cutter. Like many big men forced to check Golden State’s spread looks, LaMarcus Aldridge often found himself wobbling uncomfortably out on an island on the perimeter. The Spurs’ defense had hoped to close the court against the Curry/Green tandem, but it just didn’t happen.
If Golden State’s stars thrived offensively, unencumbered by various defensive approaches, San Antonio’s offensive centerpieces—Leonard and Aldridge—looked uncharacteristically shipwrecked.
For Leonard, the biggest issue was a lack of involvement. On a night when San Antonio desperately needed a superstar’s counterpunch, he failed to fit the bill, scoring 16 points but attempting just six shots. There was no compelling reason for Leonard to settle as he did: Parker played limited minutes, Manu Ginobili was erratic, Danny Green never left an imprint on offense and David West was the only consistent source of scoring early. The big, physical multi-dimensional scorer that has paced San Antonio only put up one three-point attempt all night.
Shades of Leonard’s overly quiet play during last year’s playoffs came back against the Warriors, an unfortunate turn of events for a player who has made such major strides to his all-around game. Certainly, Golden State’s deep corps of perimeter defenders presents a host of challenges, but Leonard has reached the point where it’s time for him to go down swinging.
Perhaps a strong night from Aldridge would have helped cover for Leonard, but San Antonio’s new star was entirely ineffective. He couldn’t catch a rhythm or establish quality position in isolation situations against Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut, and he never found the touch on his jumper. The end result was a season-low five points on 2-for-9 shooting, the type of no-show night that will likely mean instant death for the Spurs if these two teams square off as expected in the Western Conference finals.
“I was bad,” Aldridge said. “I was in a rush. They scrambled so much. I’ll learn from it.”
To compound matters, San Antonio’s reliable offensive system deserted it in this time of need. During one ugly third-quarter stretch, the Spurs chucked off a late-clock jumper off the side of the backboard on one possession, only to throw the ball away into the crowd on the next. The deliberate, often surgical Spurs committed 26 turnovers worth of unsuccessful surgeries, as the Warriors applied strong pressure to the ball and consistently contested potential shooters. On many occasions, the patented pass-pass-pass sequences simply led to rotate-rotate-rotate responses from Golden State.
“Our communication defensively was excellent tonight,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “San Antonio executes better than anybody in the league. Every cut is a hard one and every screen is a solid one. The ball moves side-to-side and they use a lot of deception. If you aren’t communicating you are going to get beat.”
Kerr went on to praise Green’s defensive effort, noting that his do-everything power forward asked out of the game to rest in the first quarter because he had expended so much energy, something the coach said hadn’t happened previously during his tenure.
This, like Curry’s repeated smacks at his chest and shouts of “Let’s go!” as the Warriors extended their lead in the third quarter, was evidence of an elite team pushing itself to do more, doing everything it could to flourish on the big stage. The night opened with plenty of talk about how the Warriors and Spurs had the highest combined winning percentage of any two teams that faced each other in league history. By the evening’s end, that factoid gave way to another: the Warriors dealt the Spurs just their seventh 30-point loss during the Duncan era, which began in 1997.
When historic hype gives way to a rare pounding like this, everyone is left to draw the same conclusion.
“At this point they’re better than us,” Ginobili admitted candidly. “I’m not embarrassed to face it.”