Perfect Matchup Means Warriors Can Save Stephen Curry for San Antonio Spurs

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 2, 2016

Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry, right, and Shaun Livingston celebrate a score against the Houston Rockets from the bench during the first half in Game 5 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ben Margot/Associated Press

If Stephen Curry suits up at any point in the Golden State Warriors' second-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, necessity will have little to do with it.

From the looks of a 118-106 Game 1 trouncing on Sunday, the Dubs are more than capable of resting their best player and preserving him for the series that really matters. You know, the one against the San Antonio Spurs (who smashed the Oklahoma City Thunder, 124-92, in their own Game 1 win) that we've all been waiting for since November.

That's when the Warriors will need all their shotmaking brilliance, pace-pushing potency and historically fearsome hybrid lineups.

For now, it's more like, "Relax, Steph; we've got this."

 

Built to Bury the Blazers

May 1, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) passes the basketball against Golden State Warriors guard Shaun Livingston (34) during the first quarter in game one of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. Ma
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Dependence on two players to generate offense is where the struggles of Portland's rebuilding efforts show most. 

Yes, the franchise is years ahead of schedule because it spent wisely on young role-fillers to surround its high-scoring duo. But because no one else on the roster can create shots for himself or others, and because Golden State's backcourt length is perfect for bottling up Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, the Blazers offense stalls out when those two don't work themselves into space for clean looks.

Between Shaun Livingston, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala, the Warriors boast one of the rangiest backcourt defensive rotations in the league. They limited Lillard and McCollum to a combined 13-of-43 from the field in Game 1, forcing both to subsist on low-percentage looks.

Lillard got his 30 points, but you'd be hard pressed to think of more than one or two quality, uncontested attempts in the process.

In addition to elite point-of-attack defenders, the Warriors are uniquely equipped to bottle up the Blazers guards because of their aggressive switching schemes.

When Portland tried to extricate Lillard from Livingston or Thompson with picks above the arc, Draymond Green hungrily jumped out to switch. He relishes the challenge of corralling elite point guards. Against Lillard, Green was no less fierce than his teammates. Even when he wasn't involved in the play directly, his preternaturally timed help rotations brought him rudely into Lillard's space.

Oh, and, ho hum, Green also produced a 23-point, 13-rebound, 11-assist triple-double.

Green does this to plenty of guards, so the Blazers backcourt isn't getting any kind of special treatment. But there's another element to this matchup that amplifies Golden State's effectiveness.

 

Death Unleashed

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 27:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors is congratulated by Shaun Livingston #34 and Andre Iguodala #9 after he made a shot on Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals d
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Curry-less starting unit of Livingston, Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Green and Andrew Bogut allowed just 93.7 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, according to NBAWowy. And it's worth mentioning that Bogut was a beast in Game 1. He limited Mason Plumlee to a single point, grabbed 12 rebounds, blocked three shots and scored 10 points.

As it stands, there's not much of a case for taking him off the floor.

But if the Warriors really want to make a mockery of this series, they could devote heavy minutes to their small-ball lineup, replacing Bogut with Iguodala. Plumlee isn't the sort of punishing interior force who could exploit a center-less lineup, so Golden State could get away with fielding a unit of five players between 6'6" and 6'8".

Capable of switching every screen and outfitted to push the pace on turnovers and misses—regardless of who winds up with the ball after the change of possession—the Warriors have the tools to blitz the Blazers.

We didn't see much of this group in Game 1, but the potential efficacy was hard to miss.

This all-out, switch-happy scheme isn't possible with Curry. His smaller frame makes him more vulnerable to post-up attacks, and he's generally weaker against Lillard's or McCollum's drives. Nobody's making the case the Dubs are objectively better without Steph...it's just that, in specific situations, his absence unlocks new weapons.

This probably isn't optimal against every opponent. But facing a Portland team that lacks a dominant big man and falls apart when its guards can't penetrate, it's difficult to conceive of a better tactic than trotting out five like-sized players and going wild.

 

Enjoy It While It Lasts

Darren Abate/Associated Press

Curry may well return against the Blazers. As his team ran over Portland Sunday, he told ESPN's Lisa Salters (h/t RealGM.com) his chances of returning for Game 3 were "pretty good."

If it's impossible for Golden State to keep the maniacally competitive Curry from coming back in this series, so be it. Suiting up a superstar too early is a decent problem to have.

But the smart money is on resting the MVP as long as possible, because when the inevitable matchup against the Spurs finally arrives, the Dubs will need everything they've shown against Portland and more.

They'll need every version of the Death Lineup. They'll need Thompson's 37-point eruptions. They'll need Bogut to control the interior for long stretches. They'll need to switch. They'll need to defend the post. They'll need to help and recover.

They'll need all of it. And that includes a defense-altering long-range shooter who contorts schemes and buries 30-footers routinely.

OAKLAND, CA  - APRIL 7: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors shoots against the San Antonio Spurs during the game on April 7, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Put cruelly, the Warriors don't need Curry to beat Portland. But surviving San Antonio without him seems impossible. If they play it right, the Dubs can set themselves up to hit the Spurs with everything they've got in a couple of weeks.

It shouldn't be this way. You should need all hands on deck in the playoffs, and you definitely shouldn't have the luxury of looking past an entire series. But that's where the Warriors are after a dominant Game 1 effort that offered few hints about what the Blazers might do to turn the tide.

Let's just chalk this up as the latest evidence this Warriors team is truly special.

 

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