Figuring Out What Went Wrong in Golden State Warriors Second Round Loss
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They had stolen home-court advantage away from the San Antonio Spurs, and one last-second defensive breakdown in Game 1 is all that separated Golden State from a commanding 2-0 lead.
Stephen Curry was playing at an All-NBA level. Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes were clicking. The Spurs, who most people thought were the best team remaining in Western Conference, seemed to have no answer.
From that point forward, however, San Antonio grabbed control of the series and didn't once relinquish it.
They won Game 3 in Oakland, reclaiming home-court advantage. The Warriors won Game 4 in overtime, but the Spurs didn't panic and crushed the Warriors in Game 5.
Game 6 figured to be Golden State's to lose, as its season was on the line and they were playing in front of the NBA's best home crowd. But the Spurs came out with a gutsy performance and closed out the series.
While the loss was certainly a disappointment—the Warriors went from becoming the scariest team not called the Miami Heat in the NBA playoffs to being eliminated in a matter of one week—the defeat was not gut-wrenching.
Part of this is due to the fact that the Warriors went further than anyone anticipated this season, but Golden State's end was also made relatively painless due to its swift, swinging of their sharp executioner's sword.
The Warriors thrive on perimeter shooting. That isn't to say they are a "jumpshooting team" in the diminutive sense. The Warriors can win games with defense, rebounding, points in the paint, transition buckets and crisp half-court offense. But the team's biggest strength is the shooting ability of its starting backcourt.
Stephen Curry set an NBA record with 272 three-pointers this season, and if you watch NBA playoff basketball, you've certainly witnessed the numerous coronations of him as the best shooter in the world.
What most people do not know is that the 211 triples drained by Klay Thompson this season is the 22nd-highest total in NBA history.
Curry and Thompson combined to hit 5.9 threes per game this season at 43 percent efficiency. That's 18 points a night on 13.7 shots.
So what did San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich do after Curry and Thompson hit them with 16 triples in the first two games? His team held the duo to 16 threes over the next four games, cutting their production in half.
The San Antonio defense usually rotates frequently, closing out on shooters, blocking shots from the weak side and rebounding as a team. Popovich decided to move away from this strategy in this series, keeping his best perimeter defenders—Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard—glued to Curry and Thompson at all times.
He also opted to run an offense that focused heavily on tiring Curry and Thompson out. Both Tony Parker (Thompson's man) and Green (guarded by Curry) took more shots in the series than they normally do.
As the Spurs' strategy of neutralizing Curry and Thompson proved to be working, Warriors coach Mark Jackson opted to run his offense through Jarrett Jack and Harrison Barnes.
Both players did everything they could to exploit their matchups. Jack averaged 17.5 points over the final four games, while the placement of Leonard and Green on Curry and Thompson allowed Barnes to consistently go up against a smaller man. He averaged 18 points over those four games.
But Jack is too turnover prone and too limited as a passer to beat San Antonio as the primary playmaker, while Barnes' inability to draw fouls or find open men when the defense collapses on him made his scoring something the Spurs could live with.
On the other end, San Antonio simply showed more experience than Golden State.
Tony Parker shot only 43 percent over the final four games, but he got to the free-throw line over seven times per game. Golden State's guarding of Parker with Thompson left Kawhi Leonard frequently mismatched against weaker perimeter defenders, and he shot an incredible 56.4 percent over those four games.
While Golden State's sixth man, Jack, failed to initiate the offense, San Antonio's sixth man, Manu Ginobili, thrived. His shot was off all series, but he made plays for others, crashed the boards, came up with steals and limited his turnovers.
Danny Green, while not the outside shooter that Curry and Thompson are, hurt Golden State by consistently getting open looks due to the defense collapsing when San Antonio worked the ball inside. He and Ginobili each hit eight triples over the final four games, matching the total from Curry and Thompson.
The Warriors could not beat the Spurs when San Antonio was matching them from deep because Popovich's club is simply too strong on the inside for Golden State to match them there too.
Warriors center Andrew Bogut played as good a defensive series as one can against the Spurs. He averaged 11.5 rebounds and held Tim Duncan to 42.3 percent shooting.
Still, Duncan got to the line 5.7 times a game and averaged 19.5 points. Bogut scored only 37 points in the entire series and was taken off the floor whenever Golden State was in the bonus due to his terrible free-throw shooting (7-for-18 in the series).
The Warriors were thoroughly beaten by the Spurs. San Antonio took away their opponents' strengths on offense and exploited their weaknesses on defense. They proved to have more versatile personnel at the top and a greater quantity of players who could pitch in than Golden State had.
Nothing really went wrong for the Warriors in this series. They could have been a little hotter from the field and should have gotten slightly better treatment from the officials, but ultimately were outplayed by a team that's been built up over a far longer period of time and outcoached by a man that's won four championships and 29 playoff series over 16 seasons.
Golden State must do everything it can to learn and improve from this defeat, but tip of the hat is also in order.
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