Emerging Storylines in Golden State Warriors vs. San Antonio Spurs Series

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Emerging Storylines in Golden State Warriors vs. San Antonio Spurs Series
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Harrison Barnes (left) shoots over Manu Ginobili (right)

The second round of the 2013 NBA playoffs has been better than anyone could have hoped for.

Three teams that aren't supposed to be in Round 2 have taken away home-court advantage, the favorites in two of those series have wrestled it back, and the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks are going at it like it's 1995.

Oh, and who could forget the classic Golden State Warriors-San Antonio Spurs rivalry?

The rivalry dates all the way back to May 6, 2013, but it feels like it was last week.

No, there isn't much history between these two clubs, and the history that does exist is not that of two heavyweights perennially clashing in April and May.

Rather, it's a history of San Antonio—the winningest franchise in the NBA since 1990—dominating Golden State, a team that has only won a playoff series three times during that span (the first of which came against the Spurs in 1991).

The Warriors also had not won a game in San Antonio since 1997, the longest losing streak of its kind in the NBA. Since the Warriors' last win in South Texas, the Spurs have won four NBA titles.

A regular-season home loss to the Warriors would have been a blip on the Spurs' radar, while a road win in San Antonio would have been a highlight during one of Golden State's many dreadful seasons. Still, it didn't happen.

History went out the window during Game 1, when Golden State dominated the Spurs in San Antonio for 44 minutes.

The veteran Spurs did rally to win in double overtime and push their home winning streak over the Warriors to 30 games, but Game 1 was still a watershed moment for Golden State.

The young Warriors entered Game 2 with not only the confidence that they could win in San Antonio, but the knowledge that they could.

And they did. The Warriors won, 100-91, and took home-court advantage away from Gregg Popovich's team.

After a Game 2 win against the Denver Nuggets in Round 1 proved to be the series decider—both teams defended home court with the exception of that game—the Warriors and their fans were confident that Round 2 may work out the same way.

The only problem was, Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker can impose their will in a way that George Karl, Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson cannot.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Tim Duncan (left) and Tony Parker (right) are not easily rattled

The Spurs were at their best in Game 3, and the Warriors looked like the inferior team that most people thought they were.

Suddenly, home-court advantage was back in San Antonio's hands, and the Warriors faced a must-win situation.

The Spurs controlled the flow of Game 4, but Golden State kept it close with grit and hard work. They were able to surge back late in the fourth quarter to send the game to overtime, where they put their foot down and tied the series.

***

Interestingly, this series has taken on a sort of symmetry through four games. Game 1 was controlled by the Warriors but won by the Spurs in overtime. Game 2 was controlled by the Warriors throughout. Game 3 went decisively to the Spurs, and in Game 4 the Warriors were outplayed for 40-plus minutes but won in overtime.

More intriguing than this pattern, however, is the fact that the road team arguably has been the better team in all four contests thus far.

There are three likely explanations for this, all with varying implications.

It may simply mean that these two teams are evenly matched, and the strong road play has been random.

It could mean that the road team plays with a greater sense of urgency and focus, a trend that would favor the Warriors were it to continue.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Stephen Curry and the Warriors took Texas by storm early on

The third possible reason for this is that the Warriors took the Spurs by surprise early on, and those games just happened to be in San Antonio. The Spurs made adjustments and have outplayed the Warriors since, despite the Oracle effect.

If this is the case, advantage Spurs, especially considering that the series is shifting back to Texas.


***

This third possibility is most likely the best explanation, but that doesn't mean the Warriors are done.

While the Spurs clearly made the proper adjustments over the past two games, the Warriors still split those two games. Getting the split has kept them alive in this series, and the ball is now in Mark Jackson's court (metaphorically, though not geographically).

The Spurs have done their best to take Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson out of the game. And what a job they've done. Curry and Thompson scored a combined 119 points in the first two games of the series, but have been held to 65 over the past two.

This was largely due to the stellar defense of Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Danny Green's (right) defense on Stephen Curry (left) has forced the Warriors to look for other options

In Game 3, Golden State had absolutely no answer. In Game 4, they went to Harrison Barnes repeatedly, as he was mismatched against Tony Parker or Gary Neal. Barnes finished with 26 points despite an off-shooting day, as he was able to consistently back down, drive on, draw fouls from and pull up over his smaller defender.

He also used his size advantage to grab five offensive rebounds in the game, extra chances that the Warriors absolutely needed in a game where they shot only 38 percent from the field.

Jackson is likely to again go to this matchup. If the Spurs keep their best defenders on Curry and Thompson, Barnes is very unlikely to go 9-for-26 again.


***

While better offensive performances likely loom ahead for Golden State, anything short of shooting the lights out won't be enough unless they sustain the defense that they played in Game 4 and neutralize San Antonio's inevitable adjustments.

The Warriors' defense is anchored by Andrew Bogut, and to an extent, the Warriors go as he goes. He did his job in Game 4, grabbing 13 defensive rebounds in 27 minutes and leading the way in holding Tim Duncan to 7-of-22 shooting.

The Spurs attempted to take Bogut off the floor the same way they had in the three prior games: by intentionally fouling him off the ball once they were in the penalty.

Whether this should be allowed by rule or not, great strategical coaches—and there is none better than Popovich—will and should exploit the rules in any way they can.

Mark Jackson is doing what any coach opposing Popovich must do: turn the Hall of Famer's strategies against him.

Jackson played Bogut as much as possible when the Warriors were not in the penalty. Even with two fouls, he kept Bogut on the court in the first quarter until he picked up a third.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Andrew Bogut (right) defended Tim Duncan (left) exceptionally in Game 4

He played Bogut in the second and third quarters until he picked up a fourth foul. And when San Antonio got into the penalty, Jackson sat Bogut down.

Once the game reached the final two minutes, Bogut was rested and had stayed put at four fouls. Popovich could no longer put him on the line, and Bogut dominated the game from the defensive interior.

If Jackson continues to maximize Bogut's minutes when the Spurs cannot put him on the line, the only way for Popovich to force Bogut off the floor will be to either intentionally get into the penalty or to try to get him into even worse foul trouble.

Intentionally getting into the penalty is out of the question, so the Spurs' only realistic option will be to drive the lane more and crash the boards harder, hoping to get Bogut into foul trouble.

The Warriors have countered this approach by playing Festus Ezeli and Bogut at the same time—so that one can protect the rim while the other sticks to Tim Duncan and rebounds.

Again, Gregg Popovich is amongst the greatest coaches in the history of the NBA, and it is unlikely that playing a backup-rookie center will be the equivalent of a knockout punch for Golden State.

But an NBA playoff series is not a game of chess. Thinking too far ahead can only hurt you. Every game must be played and coached like it's the last, and there are no defined turns. The series is tied 2-2, and the next move belongs to whichever club makes it.

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