If any game epitomizes the changing of the guard in the West, it's Friday night's 8:30 ET matchup between the up-and-coming Golden State Warriors (4-1) and the entrenched but aging San Antonio Spurs (4-1).
The contest is a rematch from last year's Western Conference Semifinals and could conceivably be a preview of this year's playoffs as well. Here are the keys to the Warriors handing the Spurs their first home loss of the season.
Get Steph's Best Effort
Curry left Wednesday's win over Minnesota in the third quarter with what would later be diagnosed as a left ankle bone bruise, according to the team's official twitter:
Curry, an emerging star, is arguably the Warriors' most important player and his ability to play to his full capacity is essential for a Golden State victory tonight. Everyone knows about his electrifying shooting from beyond the arc. But Curry has embraced the role of facilitator as well this year, dishing out 9.2 assists per game so far.
The Warriors need Curry in tonight's game to run the offense, but they also need him to guard his San Antonio counterpart, the elusive Tony Parker. Watch how Curry is moving, especially on defense, in the early stages of the game. If he looks like his usual spry self, then the Warriors will give the Spurs all they can handle. If he's nursing that ankle, he'll end up either watching Parker blow past him or sitting on the bench.
Run the Break
You probably won't be able to outsmart the Spurs on defense. But you might be able to outrun them. Last season, the Spurs gave up 13.1 fast break points per game, via TeamRankings.com, 16th in the league and a relative weakness amongst their overall defensive prowess.
Golden State, on the other hand, loves to run the court. So far this season they lead the league with 22.0 fast break points per game. They have a gang of young, athletic players in Curry, Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala, who can close passing lanes quickly on defense and reverse court in an instant, like in this video from the preseason.
If the Warriors can steal some buckets in transition by hustling past the San Antonio veterans, they'll have a better chance at pulling off the road victory.
Defend the Paint
In San Antonio's 99-96 win over the Suns on Wednesday, they dominated the paint for 56 points. They are averaging 50.4 points per game in that area this year, good for third in the league. Their success in the paint is a due to Parker's ability to penetrate and Tim Duncan's patented post moves.
The Warriors are not particularly good at interior defense. They allow 43.2 points in the paint per game, 22nd in the league this year. But power forward David Lee, a long proven offensive asset, claims to have finally ramped up his defensive skills, via Warriors blog @LetsGoWarriors:
In Golden State's two playoff victories over the Spurs last year, they held Duncan to 38.1 percent shooting from the floor, more than 12 percent below his season average. If Lee and center Andrew Bogut can limit Duncan's effectiveness, the Warriors might grab the W.
There are a handful of young teams that think themselves the best in the West. But the road to the NBA Finals still passes through the black-and-white clad Spurs and their graying stars. If Golden State wants to call themselves championship-caliber, they must show that they can handle San Antonio, especially on the road. Tonight is their first chance.