Ultimate Guide to San Antonio Spurs Upsetting the Golden State Warriors
Somewhere in between herculean and impossible lies the task awaiting the San Antonio Spurs.
The Golden State Warriors—San Antonio's dancing partner in the 2017 NBA Western Conference Finals—are hard to handle at full strength, going 8-0 this postseason and 23-1 since mid-March.
The Spurs are not at full strength. Starting point guard Tony Parker didn't make it out of the conference semifinals versus the Houston Rockets, suffering a playoff-ending ruptured left quadriceps tendon. All-Star leader Kawhi Leonard missed their second-round clincher with a sprained ankle.
Lloyd Christmas doesn't like San Antonio's on-paper chances. But writing off head coach Gregg Popovich and the Alamo City's finest never seems a sound strategy no matter how insurmountable the odds appear.
What would need to happen for the Spurs to pull off a shocking upset? Great question, which we'll examine in detail here. Catastrophic injuries could obviously shift the balance, but we're focused on the strategic choices and heroic performances that must take place for San Antonio to find a way through this colossal challenge starting Sunday at Oracle Arena.
Avoid Overreacting to Random Outbursts
Golden State's second team isn't the stripped-down unit it's often made out to be. Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.
During their first-round matchup, the Blazers saw Ian Clark erupt for 12 points in 12 minutes of the opener. The next time out, JaVale McGee exploded for 15 points and four blocks in only 13 minutes. For the series clincher, David West crammed 12 points, four assists and two steals into 16 minutes of action.
More unexpected outbursts are likely on the way. The Spurs must process those surprises correctly.
There's a reason guys like Clark, McGee, West and Shaun Livingston don't make the front page of opponents' scouting reports. They might sizzle in a six-minute stretch here or change the balance of a quarter there, but they won't have the consistent production—or even enough of an opportunity—to have a significant say in the series outcome.
As long as they aren't neglected, they're getting enough attention. Anything more, and San Antonio risks being burned by one of Golden State's actual studs.
Beat JaVale to His Spots
On the surface, McGee's career renaissance with Golden State makes zero sense. Here's a training camp invite with arguably the best blooper reel in the business becoming an indispensable piece of the league's top team.
But it's not as mind-bending as it seems.
McGee is mostly the same player he's always been, an exuberant 7-footer with impossible athleticism. The difference is his role is so simplified—essentially run, jump, repeat—that all the potential for him to overstep his bounds is gone. Add in the supreme talent and heightened hoops IQs around him, and you have a seemingly unstoppable weapon in short bursts.
McGee has been a wrecking ball this postseason, shooting a ridiculous 73 percent while averaging 23.3 points, 11.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per 36 minutes. And the Dubs have gone demolition mode whenever he's played, bashing opponents by 37.3 points per 100 possessions.
Containing McGee means depriving Golden State of its in-game energizer. Coach Popovich should be able to game-plan for a lob specialist. If San Antonio barricades McGee's runway for alley-oops and offensive rebounds, it could ground his impact quickly.
"If you were ever worried about JaVale McGee being exploited, you should be now with Gregg Popovich on the other sidelines," the Bay Area News Group's Marcus Thompson II wrote.
Empower the Role Players
Among the many coaching gifts in Popovich's possession, his ability to maximize the entire roster might be the most impressive. Who else can win a road elimination game—by 39 points no less—without Leonard and Parker?
"It's fitting the Spurs humiliated Houston, in Houston, with Dejounte Murray, Jonathon Simmons and [Kyle] Anderson getting huge minutes...," ESPN.com's Zach Lowe wrote. "... All three guys played significant minutes in the regular season, even while spending chunks of it outside Popovich's rotation."
While some coaches agonize over role players' weaknesses, Popovich zeroes in on the strengths, which allows the Spurs to enter the playoffs with a roster full of confident and capable bodies.
That's invaluable for a time like this, when Parker is already shelved for the playoffs and Leonard's ankle bothered him enough to keep him out of Game 6 on Thursday. The Spurs are forced to go deep into their supporting cast anyway, and Pop's proactive approach has the understudies ready.
He can flip his rotation fast, which this series might demand. The length of Murray and Anderson could be potent defensive weapons on the perimeter. Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon can cause similar defensive havoc with their athleticism. Davis Bertans might need minutes in a shootout, while David Lee could be the better choice at a slower pace.
In short, the Spurs need everyone and everything they can give.
Golden State's rapid strikes can make San Antonio look old and slow in an instant. If this series gets out of hand, don't be shocked if Warriors frontcourt players literally run circles around their counterparts.
The Spurs have to play as much of this round at their speed as possible. They have flashes of giddy-up every now and then, but their best work occurs at a deliberate, methodical pace. They've played this postseason at the fourth-slowest rate, while the Warriors have sprinted to the third-fastest. During the regular season, the gap was even wider, with Golden State fourth and San Antonio 27th.
This is all about maximizing each possession and limiting easy runouts. Against Golden State, hurried trips that yield long rebounds or giveaways are almost automatically buckets the other way. The Warriors lead all postseason participants with 19.3 fast-break points per game, which is actually down from their league-leading mark of 22.6 during the regular season.
The Spurs must find the best possible shot, even if that means working through second, third and fourth actions. They have finished 24.6 percent of their playoff possessions in the final seven seconds of the shot clock, over twice as many as the Warriors (11.1 percent).
In the first two rounds, San Antonio went 7-0 when holding teams below 105 points and just 1-4 when it didn't. Golden State has scored fewer than 105 points once this postseason.
Bully the Small-Ball Bigs
There isn't a lot of useful information to extract from the teams' three regular-season matchups. One took place more than six months ago, and the others featured notable absences for rest and injuries.
But the Spurs' blueprint to survive this series closely resembles their strategy from that opening-night 29-point bludgeoning. Namely, they slaughtered the smaller superteam on the glass with a 55-35 rebounding advantage and nearly as many offensive boards (21) as the Dubs had defensively (27).
"If you don't close out the possession, the first stop is pointless," Draymond Green told reporters after the contest. "And that also stopped our fast break, which is the way we want to play."
Dominating the interior battle simultaneously plays up San Antonio's strength and limits Golden State's use of its own.
The Spurs have been the second-best offensive rebounding team of the playoffs (28.4 percent) and fourth-best in second-chance points (14.1). In the regular season, the Warriors had the second-worst defensive rebounding percentage (74.9) and surrendered the third-most second-chance points (14.0).
San Antonio's bigs will be at such an athletic disadvantage that Popovich might have to limit his two-big lineups. Still, whoever is on the floor must make his size matter. Doing so would mean more boards, more offensive opportunities and fewer transition chances for Golden State.
Feed LaMarcus Buffet-Style
Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals gave the Alamo City a welcome reminder: This LaMarcus Aldridge guy can play.
That fans needed any prompting speaks to the inconsistency he's encountered with the Spurs. The five-time All-Star has had more sub-40 percent shooting performances this playoffs (four) than 20-plus point outings (three).
Still, he's capable of producing monster stat lines like his 34-point, 12-rebound gem in the second-round clincher. The Warriors have seen it up close. He burned them for 26 points and 14 boards on opening night and then had 17 points and five blocks the next time he played them. Last year, he twice torched them for at least 24 points and 10 rebounds.
But flashes of elite play aren't good enough.
As SB Nation's Tim Cato wrote, the Spurs desperately need Aldridge's star to shine: "This is where Aldridge will be pushed to his absolute limits. If he's a power forward, he'll have to run around with Draymond Green or Kevin Durant. If he shifts to center for most of the series, as he probably should, there's still going to be a lot of responsibility for him to play the perimeter as Golden State constantly runs pick-and-rolls with his man.
"It's not an ideal matchup for him, but San Antonio doesn't have a chance without him playing ball something like he did in Game 6."
The Spurs must ensure Aldridge has enough touches to make a similar impact. Because if he's good enough to collapse Golden State's defense, life at the offensive end grows infinitely easier for San Antonio's others.
Throw Everything at Steph
Watch the Warriors on the right night, and you can convince yourself Stephen Curry is no longer their most important player.
What would give you that impression? Maybe it's Kevin Durant doing four-time scoring champion things. Or Draymond Green messing around and getting a triple-double while locking down all five positions on defense. Or Klay Thompson igniting amid a 37-point quarter or a 60-point outing.
But all you need to know is head coach Steve Kerr's thought on Curry.
"When he's aggressive, we go," Kerr told reporters in January.
Golden State's net efficiency has gone from historically great (plus-25.1) to almost Sacramento Kings bad (minus-4.3) when he's left the floor this postseason. For context, Green has the next lowest off-court net rating at plus-5.8. In the regular season, the Warriors were 16.2 points worse per 100 possessions without Curry. Counting the playoffs, they are 20-2 this year when he has at least 30 points.
Stopping the Warriors starts with containing Curry, something the Spurs struggled to do this season (averaged 27.5 points and 7.5 assists against them). His in-the-gym range is the ultimate space-creator, and he'll leverage his gravity to find open chances for his teammates. Crowding him on the perimeter is risky, but giving him breathing room can be a death sentence.
There is no right answer for the man who defies conventional defensive wisdom. The best the Spurs can do is hope a combination of Simmons, Danny Green, Patty Mills and—in a pinch—Leonard at least makes Curry work.
Get the Best Kawhi Yet
Most Warriors opponents hit the hardwood resigned to the fact they'll have no better than the third-best player on the floor. But the Spurs can reasonably like their chances of having the best player in this series, provided Leonard's ankle doesn't hold him back.
He's a buzzsaw the likes of which Golden State hasn't encountered since LeBron James went basketball cyborg on them in last year's NBA Finals. In fact, Leonard and James are the only postseason contestants averaging at least 27 points on 50 percent shooting, seven rebounds and four assists.
Leonard is also the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year and the 2014 Finals MVP.
"Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now," Popovich said, per CBS Sports' James Herbert. "He's the best two-way player."
In case you're thinking Popovich is too close to Leonard to be impartial, Kerr called him the best two-way player last year, per CSN Bay Area's Monte Poole.
But San Antonio's survival depends on Leonard having the series of his life. At the least, he'll be carrying the scorching torch and neutralizing whichever Warriors scorer ignites. He also needs to challenge for the rebound lead—especially if the Spurs go small—and pick up the playmaking slack in Parker's absence. Leonard doesn't have the same caliber of weapons on his side, so he must use his abilities to increase theirs.
It took an unprecedented performance from James to slay the Durant-less Warriors in 2016. Leonard, with less help and more star power on the other side, must dominate every facet of the game.