Will the Western Conference finals further confirm Golden State’s historic greatness, or will this long-awaited showdown with San Antonio shock oddsmakers and most observers by developing into a competitive series?
There are strong arguments to be made for a Warriors runaway. Golden State is clearly the more talented team, boasting a perfect 8-0 record and a league-best +16.5 point differential in the playoffs. The Warriors have home-court advantage, they will have enjoyed three extra rest days before Sunday’s Game 1, and they have played four fewer games than the Spurs through two rounds. They also have better health—thanks to Tony Parker’s season-ending leg injury and Kawhi Leonard’s nagging ankle—and have led comfortably for a vast majority of their sweeps over the Blazers and Jazz. And while the Spurs proved they could severely limit James Harden’s effectiveness over the past week, trying to contain a much more balanced Warriors attack driven by four All-Stars is a much trickier proposition.
But there are some good reasons to stop and think for a minute. This is a formidable, balanced, and disciplined opponent led by an MVP candidate in Leonard. The Spurs had the best record and best point differential of any team besides the Warriors this season, and they owned the league’s top defense in the regular season. The only other time this decade that the NBA’s top offense faced the top defense in the playoffs was the 2013 East finals, when the Heat needed seven games to get past the Pacers. From a point differential standpoint, the Spurs will be the second-best team that the Warriors have faced during the Steve Kerr era. The only better team, the 2016 Thunder, took a 3-1 lead before falling in seven games.
There’s also the oft-cited head-to-head record: San Antonio managed to go 2-1 against Golden State this season, even if one of the wins came on opening night, the other came with Golden State resting its stars, and the loss featured a truly devastating Warriors comeback. Finally, one could argue—as Cavaliers forward Richard Jefferson did recently—that the Warriors’ stunning postseason has been aided by injuries to opponents like Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic and Utah’s George Hill.
Still, Golden State must be viewed as the prohibitive favorite. Stephen Curry has been a steady presence, enjoying good health unlike last year and scorching the nets late in the Portland series. Kevin Durant has moved past a knee sprain and a minor calf injury, killing off the Jazz with a dominant late-game scoring display in Game 3. Draymond Green has been a one-man wrecking crew, blocking shots, intimidating ball-handlers, making gorgeous reads and knocking down an absurd 51.2% of his three-pointers. The Spurs can take comfort in the fact that they will be ceding all of the pressure, but that may not matter if the Warriors’ superstars continue clicking on all cylinders.
Three storylines to watch
• Kawhi Leonard’s ankle. San Antonio’s All-Star forward missed the closing stages of Game 5 and all of Game 6 against Houston with an ankle injury. Multiple reports indicate that Leonard would have played in a Game 7, if necessary, and that he’s good to for Game 1 on Sunday. The Spurs got by admirably in Leonard’s absence: Patty Mills, Danny Green, LaMarcus Aldridge and Jonathon Simmons all picked up some of the slack on offense, while Simmons was sensational in shadowing Harden. For the Spurs to slow down Golden State’s shooter-heavy lineups, which are more reliable and tested than Houston’s, they will need all hands on deck. To make this a series, Leonard will need to win his match-up with Durant. To do that, he’ll need to be fully healthy.
• Coaching showdown. Warriors assistant coach Mike Brown has done an admirable job stepping in on short notice for Steve Kerr, who is sidelined indefinitely after experiencing debilitating symptoms related to his previous back surgery. According to Brown, he’s remained in regular contact with Kerr and delivered his boss’s messages to the players. San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich represents the toughest challenge any stand-in coach could face. Not only is Popovich the league’s longest-tenured and most experienced coach, but he just turned San Antonio’s second-round series on its head with his game plan for defending Harden and his implementation of defensive adjustments to slow Houston’s attack and offensive adjustments to free up Aldridge and make use of PauGasol. Popovich and his staff will have some surprises in store for the Warriors, and Brown’s ability to find the correct counters in real time will be put under the microscope.
• Golden State’s defense. Most of the discussion about this series will center on San Antonio’s ability to slow down Golden State, but that could easily wind up being a moot point if the Warriors continue to defend at the same level they have through the first two series. Here’s perhaps the most stunning stat of the postseason: Golden State’s defensive rating of 96.9 is a whopping 8.4 points better than any of the eight teams that won a first-round series. It’s worth noting that they strangled two teams in Portland and Utah that had top 12 offenses during the regular season. The Warriors have all of the major elements needed to slow San Antonio: length and strength on the perimeter to make Leonard work, quickness and organization to cover the there-point line, and the ability to alternate between big and small lineup looks to counter the Spurs’ offensive rebounding as needed.
Most Intriguing Matchup
Draymond Green vs. LaMarcus Aldridge. With one fabulous Game 6 performance, LaMarcus Aldridge went from being “The star his team’s fans most wanted to trade” to “The most begrudged postseason hero in recent memory.” Now, will the pendulum swing back?
Aldridge has had an uneven postseason: he was held in check by Memphis’s physical frontline for long stretches of the first round, he no-showed San Antonio’s ugly Game 1 loss to Houston, and he failed to make the most of his size mismatches in the post until his 34-point, 12-rebound series-closing effort. In six head-to-head match-ups with Green since Aldridge joined the Spurs in 2015, Aldridge has averaged 18.2 PPG and 8.3 RPG while shooting 45.9%, numbers that are essentially in line with his season averages. With no Parker, with Manu Ginobili providing limited offensive contributions and with Popovich facing the possibility that his traditional lineups will get played off the court by Golden State’s versatility, the burden to support Leonard on offense falls first to Aldridge. The five-time All-Star will seemingly need to leave a major imprint to make this interesting.
There might not be a player in the league better suited to making Aldridge’s life miserable than Green, who will force him to work every possession to establish position, bump him hard when he tries to swoop through the paint, contest his jumpers and hooks alike, and force him to cover ground on the other end of the court and in transition. Aldridge was essentially invisible in two losses to Golden State last season, and a recurrence of that ineffectiveness would lead to a quick death for San Antonio in this series.
Biggest X-Factor: Klay Thompson
Golden State’s ticking time bomb is Klay Thompson, who has been relatively quiet by his standards (16.1 PPG) so far during the postseason. As one piece of context, Thompson has yet to hit five or more threes in any of Golden State’s eight playoff games. If that feels like a high bar, remember that he hit five or more threes in 10 different games last postseason, including his record-setting 11 threes against Oklahoma City in the West finals.
This might sound overly simplistic, but Thompson feels “due” for a breakthrough: His 36.2% three-point shooting represents a career postseason-low and is well under his perimeter shooting numbers at any point during his six-year career. It’s reasonable to expect Thompson to play a larger offensive role in this series, as San Antonio’s defense should be able to consistently force Golden State to work for its shots in the half-court. The better an opponent can cover Curry and Durant, the more complementary opportunities should be available for Thompson.
Warriors in 5. It’s possible to envision a path to victory for San Antonio: control the pace, squeeze out a narrow win in the bench battle, gamely defend the three-point line, crash the offensive glass, capitalize on the Warriors’ relative lack of late-game repetitions, and get monster offensive production from both Leonard and Green. But it’s a heck of a lot easier to picture Golden State rising to its first true challenge and seeking to make a statement. Unlike the Spurs, the Warriors don’t need everything to go right, they only need some things to go right. Given that the Dubs have three of the four best players in the series and a variety of complementary contributors to turn to as the lineup adjustments start to unfold, they should be able to advance to their third straight Finals in relatively short order. The biggest bummer? They won’t have to go through Tim Duncan to get there.