San Antonio went small and it paid off in a win against the Golden State Warriors. The Spurs stifled Stephen Curry in an 87–79 victory.
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The Spurs stayed perfect at home, dealing the Warriors just their seventh loss of the season, thanks to a signature sacrifice and the favorable matchups that followed.
For just the third time in a career that spans 1,383 games, the ninth-most in NBA history, Tim Duncan was dumped from San Antonio’s starting lineup. The rare demotion was made to counter a smaller Golden State look, which shifted Draymond Green to center in place of Andrew Bogut, who was out with a toe injury, and utilized Harrison Barnes as a power forward. In place of Duncan, who had come off the bench just once in the last decade, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich used LaMarcus Aldridge at the five and inserted Boris Diaw at the four.
The new-look lineups worked so well that Popovich kept Duncan on the sidelines for the entire second half, as the Spurs held off the Warriors for an 87–79 victory on Saturday night, improving to 35–0 at the AT&T Center on the season.
San Antonio’s thinking was pretty straightforward: Golden State’s starting lineup included five capable perimeter options, and the 39-year-old Duncan is best suited manning the basket area. Diaw, meanwhile, has the quickness to chase forwards around the arc and the experience to step out and switch onto guards in pick-and-roll situations.
From Popovich’s perspective, there were two major hopes: 1) that the Spurs could maintain a stifling defense against the wide-open Warriors attack, and 2) that the Aldridge/Diaw/Kawhi Leonard frontline could exploit its length advantage offensively against Green/Barnes/Brandon Rush.
On the first count, San Antonio enjoyed an unqualified victory, holding Golden State to 79 points, the fewest of Steve Kerr’s two-year tenure. The Spurs controlled the pace from the outset and masterfully avoided any of the Warriors’ back-breaking runs, doing their best to suppress the Warriors’ outside shooting. It’s difficult to comprehend a Golden State team that put up a whopping 81 points in the first half against Portland just eight days ago couldn’t break 20 in the first, second and fourth quarters.
Usually when the game goes small, Stephen Curry is at his most devastating and lethal, taking advantage of extra space in one-on-one situations and using his excellent handle to work open for layups when defenses overcommit to the shooters around him. Instead, nothing was working for Curry (14 points on 4-of-18 shooting and 1-of-12 from deep), who missed some makeable looks early and never truly got going against a Spurs team determined not to lose him.
“I don’t know about y’all, but I thought I played my best game of the year,” Curry joked on Twitter afterward.
The standout defensive sequence of the night for San Antonio came early in the second quarter, when Danny Green recovered after a Curry pump-fake to register a rare block on a Curry jumper. Green and Diaw then continued to hound Curry as he dribbled through traffic, with Ginobili also flashing through from the weakside when Curry approached the basket. The extra effort plays deep in the clock led to a wild Curry pass and a turnover going the other way.
The Spurs consistently contested Curry’s jumpers throughout the game and they often sold out to discourage him from taking others. Importantly, San Antonio’s backside defenders were almost always in place to contest Curry’s drives to the basket.
“The bigs were up, and they were participating in situations that they’re not usually in,” Popovich said. “I thought everybody was good.”
Here’s the best example: Aldridge gets switched onto Curry near the left angle. Instead of trying to stay in front of Curry, Aldridge overplays him, practically ceding a drive into the teeth of San Antonio’s defense. Curry takes what is given but runs into good help defense from Tony Parker and then has his shot swatted by a phenomenal weakside help effort by Green. Against many teams, Curry would turn the corner against a big and waltz in for a breezy layup. Not the Spurs.
Taking away the arc and the basket area from Curry when the Warriors go small is perhaps the hardest thing for any NBA team to do this season. The Spurs proved, at least for a night, that it’s possible.
“I told the guys I thought their execution and their competitiveness defensively were outstanding, and that’s something you can depend on night after night,” Popovich said. “You never know if you’re going to make shots or not, but if you can be consistent with your defense you’re in the ball game. And I thought that our guys, this was one of their … better execution games in following what we were trying to do.”
Still, it’s worth noting that multiple potential release valves for Golden State were missing in action. Klay Thompson shot just 1-of-7 from deep, Draymond Green shot just 1-of-5 from deep, and Andre Iguodala (a 44% corner three shooter this year) was out due to injury. Did the Spurs really “solve” Curry? No, but they bottled him up as well as anyone has this season and he had precious little help when he needed it.
After a poor performance in Golden State, Aldridge reasserted himself at home, scoring a game-high 26 points (on 11-of-25 shooting) and grabbing 13 rebounds. He teamed with Diaw and Leonard to decisively win the interior game, as San Antonio grabbed 14 offensive rebounds (to Golden State’s seven), scored 24 second-chance points (to Golden State’s 12), and extended multiple key possessions in the fourth quarter.
It’s hard to imagine the winner of the Aldridge/Green matchup will ultimately lose a seven-game series. In Oakland, Green harassed Aldridge into a tough shooting night, and Aldridge was so discouraged afterward that he famously deactivated his social media accounts. The tables turned on Saturday, with San Antonio doing a much better job of generating high-percentage looks for him.
If Golden State missed Iguodala on offense, it certainly missed Bogut’s length and size on defense. Barnes can defend many power forwards in small-ball looks, but Aldridge had a field day when they were switched onto each other.
Here’s Parker feeding Aldridge early for a gimme bucket with Barnes on his back.
Here’s Aldridge manhandling Barnes for an offensive rebound and putback finish.
Here’s Aldridge calling for the ball on Barnes in crunch time, methodically working to his spot and then burying a critical basket despite Barnes’s best effort.
This wasn’t just a Barnes thing. Whenever Green was switched off Aldridge, San Antonio did well to make Golden State pay. Early on, Diaw tossed a simple lob to Aldridge that Thompson had no prayer of breaking up. Later, Leonard found Aldridge behind Rush in transition for a simple layup.
It remains to be seen whether the Spurs will be able to dethrone the champs in the playoffs, but they laid out a winning formula: control the pace by slowing the game down, make Curry’s life difficult by guarding the line without sacrificing easy looks inside and win the interior battle when the game downsizes.
Doing all of that—and doing it largely without Duncan—qualifies as a strong counterpunch to Golden State’s 30-point win in January.