There has been an inevitability to the 2015-16 NBA season, an underlying feeling that no matter what happens between now and late May, it's all building to the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs battling it out in the Western Conference Finals, with the winner emerging as the likely NBA champion.
And unlike the Warriors' Jan. 25 blowout win over San Antonio, Saturday night's rematch was filled with the kind of drama you'd expect. Not that there was any doubt, but the Spurs imposed their will in an 87-79 win and proved they aren't just a tougher hurdle in the Warriors' preordained march to back-to-back titles.
Talk about the Warriors has been inescapable in all corners of the sports world—and rightly so. Even after Saturday's loss, they're 62-7 and well within range to break the 72-win record of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.
In any other year, however, the 59-10 Spurs would be the talk of the league. They'd be the ones getting best-team-of-all-time consideration—the ones viewed as the inevitable champions. That's why, as little as a regular-season win matters when forecasting a potential playoff matchup, Saturday night's victory was so crucial in shifting the narrative. Make no mistake: This is a two-team race, not a one-team show.
From the opening tip, the Spurs' historic defense swarmed Golden State's shooters. Stephen Curry shot 2-of-10 from the field in the first half and 4-of-18 overall for 14 points. He hit just one three-pointer out of 12 attempts, as Danny Green swarmed him on that end of the court and even blocked one of Curry's long-range attempts—the first time anyone has done that this season.
The Spurs dominated the glass, out-rebounding the Warriors 53-37. They forced only 10 Golden State turnovers but converted them into 11 points, compared to just seven points for the Warriors off San Antonio's 17 turnovers.
Everything about the Warriors' performance felt off. Their previous low in points scored in a game this season was 89. Their fewest points scored in a half was 42 in a Curry-less loss to the Dallas Mavericks, per B/R Insights; they scored 37 in the first half Saturday.
The last time they scored 79 points or fewer was Feb. 4, 2014. Mark Jackson, who called Saturday's game for ABC, was their head coach then. SportsCenter noted the low-scoring performance:
Golden State's 79 points are the fewest scored by the Warriors since February 4, 2014. pic.twitter.com/zd9j2MiitK— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 20, 2016
But the result of this game doesn't matter nearly as much as what it means for the eventual seven-game series between these two teams that seems all but inevitable. Whichever way it goes, we haven't seen close to either team's best effort against the other.
Tim Duncan didn't play in the January blowout; by halftime, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich already seemed to be more interested in experimenting with different lineups than in trying to win that game.
On Saturday, Golden State was on the second night of a back-to-back and played without starting center Andrew Bogut (out with a toe injury) and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala (out a couple of weeks with a sprained left ankle).
Popovich's last-minute change only added to the chess-match feel of this matchup. With Bogut out, the Warriors started Draymond Green at center. Popovich countered by benching Duncan, pairing the smaller Boris Diaw with LaMarcus Aldridge in the frontcourt. It was essentially an attempt to beat Golden State at its own game of small ball, and it worked. Nobody in a Warriors uniform could guard Aldridge, who finished with a game-high 26 points and 13 rebounds.
Popovich kept Green glued to Curry—a different look from the Kawhi Leonard-centric attack he threw at the reigning MVP in January. Even though this strategy worked, it still feels like both Popovich and Steve Kerr are just experimenting. As thrilling as this game was, as much as it lived up to the breathless hype that surrounded it this week, neither team has really shown its hand yet.
The Warriors, including Curry and Green, didn't seem too worried after the game, via Bay Area News Group's Diamond Leung:
Stephen Curry: "It’s a good learning experience. They made some adjustments from the first game, and I like where we’re at."— Diamond Leung (@diamond83) March 20, 2016
Draymond Green on Spurs "They did a good job rebounding the basketball but that won’t always happen that way." Believes in GSW small lineup.— Diamond Leung (@diamond83) March 20, 2016
The Warriors' previous six losses this season could be chalked up as flukes or schedule losses to non-contenders. Saturday's loss to the Spurs was the first time they fell against another team they might face in the late rounds of the playoffs. They swept the season series against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder, and after winning the first matchup against the Spurs handily, it was fair to question whether any of the other elite teams could even give them a run.
The Spurs did that Saturday and then some, proving they too are worthy of the praise being heaped upon the Warriors from all corners.
These teams still have two more games against each other in the regular season—one each at Oracle Arena and the AT&T Center. After Saturday, those games come with even more high-stakes, especially if both teams are still undefeated at home in April and if the Warriors are still on pace for 73 wins. But their two games in April aren't going to look like this one—and certainly nothing like what will happen if they face off in a likely Western Conference Finals series.
That's a thrilling thought for NBA fans everywhere.