It's been a weird start to the NBA season and no two teams show that more than the Spurs and the Warriors.
Strange times have fallen on the Warriors and Spurs in this season’s earlygoing, though who knows how fleeting. The natural instinct in November should be to recoil from overreaction, but as the NBA’s model franchises met on Thursday, it came amid slow starts by both their standards. Golden State remains on a title quest and San Antonio’s nonpareil consistency is well-established, so the narratives aren’t shifting anytime soon. But as the Warriors pulled away for an 112–92 win, the change in circumstances deserved some thought.
How weird has the past month been? Let’s count the ways. Over the first two weeks of the season, Golden State lost three games, 20% of last season’s loss total. Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard has been out with an injury, Tony Parker is almost back, and San Antonio has leaned on a rejuvenated LaMarcus Aldridge and new signing Rudy Gay. Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr remain great friends (Kerr’s son is now an intern for the Spurs) and have also become a popular presidential ballot pairing, at least in theory. Steph Curry has feuded with the president and been invoked in Republican tax bills. The Warriors have thrown mouthguards, accrued fines and had burner accounts exposed on their way to 6–3. As for the Spurs, well, they’ve now lost four straight regular-season games for the first time since February 2015 on their way to 4–4.
All this is a little out of the ordinary, and hung quietly over a matchup that’s generally been one of the league’s most ballyhooed. Entering Thursday, the Warriors and Spurs had split their last 10 regular-season meetings dating back to 2014-15. Any rivalry there has still been more perception than reality: Golden State’s sweep in last season’s Western Conference finals was their first postseason clash in that span. And the story has often been the same: San Antonio can slow Golden State or catch them on a bad night, but when push comes to shove, the Spurs are subject to the same recurring matchup troubles and firepower issues. They’re obviously not the only team that struggles to beat the Warriors, but the Spurs’ difficulties are a reminder of how pointless the task can seem. Even amid uncharacteristic play night-to-night, there was normalcy in that.
In the absence of Leonard, San Antonio’s bell cow has been Aldridge, who’s had a resurgent start to the season but ran into problem Thursday. The Golden State matchup has often been used as a microscope for Aldridge’s weaknesses in a small-ball leaning league. In a different era, he was a unique mismatch with his size and shooting, but against the Warriors, he’s pitted against the league’s most versatile defender in Green. Aldridge was forced to the perimeter and into difficult shots and often couldn't catch the ball comfortably. He was 8–22 from the floor and registered a –15 in plus/minus despite 24 points and 10 rebounds. Aldridge is a steady enough rim protector, but not when the Warriors can easily draw him out of the paint. It remains fair to argue so long as he remains a focal point for the Spurs, they’ll have difficulty taking advantage.
The Spurs shot 39% and blew an early 19-point lead, but will have five straight games at home in the next eight days to figure things out. It’s still unclear when Leonard will return, but it could come by the end of the month. Parker is back with the team and could add some stability soon. Popovich was tossed in the fourth quarter after receiving consecutive technicals for a profane yet humorous expression of his frustration toward officiating. The frustration meter is high, but the panic levels never seem to spike with this group. Don’t expect them to.
As for the Warriors, they appeared to course correct in Monday's 28-point win over the Clippers, and wore the Spurs down convincingly, as they often do. An especially poor first quarter that included a Kerr outburst and technical foul suggested otherwise (although in defense of both coaches, the officiating was not exemplary). This is what life under the microscope looks like for the Warriors, as oddities crop up while dominance simply feels ordinary. It’s paradoxical to be sure. As Kerr has said, the key is maintaining the vibe and keeping things fresh for a team that’s won every which way, going on four years. Ben Golliver examined it with clarity earlier this week.
Nobody’s crying for either team, and certainly nobody’s doubting them either. But amid the doldrums of a season that began earlier than ever and has spawned surprising results from coast to coast, at least the flaws have been accompanied by fascination. What’s the fun in simple blowouts, anyway?