OAKLAND, Calif. — In the NBA playoffs, countering is the name of the game.
Entering a given series, each team has a plan. They play to their strengths and hope things break right. If they're getting beaten, they adjust—a familiar back-and-forth seen in the Golden State Warriors' 116-101 Game 2 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Monday at Oracle Arena.
"Then there are little things that you may do in between," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of adjustments after first citing effort as a key factor. "You make a starting lineup change, change a tactic and find a spot on the floor you want to attack or change a matchup. As a staff we go through that exercise. What would we do if we were them? I'm sure that's what they do as well. Then you just try and adapt and adjust once the game starts."
It may not appear this way, but the Spurs are making all the right adjustments in this first-round series. It just hasn't been enough, starting with their fourth-ranked defense.
"We want the shots they do get to be contested and not their best players shooting open shots," Spurs guard Bryn Forbes told Bleacher Report. "We never want that. That's what we got last game, when a bunch of open players got a lot of good shots."
The Spurs had the right scheme and executed it well. In Saturday's Game 1, the Warriors took only 22 of their 81 field-goal attempts from beyond the arc and only 18 field goals in the restricted area, with more than half coming from mid-range. They switched heavily on the perimeter, sagged off in the pick-and-roll and tried to force contested jumpers. This is the way a modern defense wins.
The problem is Durant shoots 50 percent from mid-range, which is good enough to where giving him those shots isn't that useful. Durant alone took 11 of his 17 shots from the mid-range—64 percent of his offense—and even more than his average of 46 percent, which is in the league's 94th percentile.
"That's exactly what we're trying to do," Forbes continued. "Execute better and cut down on open shots for Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Their main scorers, those guys can't be the ones that kill you."
The Warriors played right into the Spurs' hands Monday. Golden State just made its shots.
The Spurs' immediate Game 2 counter was to play further off Andre Iguodala to help out elsewhere. The Warriors called their bluff in the first quarter, as Iguodala hit all three of his three-point attempts. The strategy was the same against Draymond Green late in the first and early in the second quarters, where the defender would leave Green to double in the post.
"That's the game plan," Spurs wing Danny Green said of Iguodala's early triples. "If they make them, you just hope they don't continue to make them. That's the game plan and you have to live with it."
If you help heavily off the non-shooters to slow Durant, you end up allowing the Warriors to shoot 10-of-22 on three-pointers. That's the trade-off you make against Golden State.
"It just happened that way," Green explained. "Even though they didn't get mid-range, they did get threes, so that hurt us. Obviously, you want to make other guys beat you, but when they score 30 a piece, it's tough to win a game. Defensively, we got to hold them to a better number than we have been."
Despite the final score, the Spurs' plan did slow the Warriors. Golden State shot 47.4 percent from the field and 30.8 percent on three-pointers before Thompson erupted in the second half.
Even when Iguodala and Co. were hitting their threes, the Spurs knew they needed to stick with the plan and hope their shooting would regress to the mean.
"Stick with the game plan. You might change it, depending on how hot they get, but that's the game plan. They hit them, they have guys step up, that's what they're supposed to do."
The Spurs defense was aggressive enough to weather the Iguodala three-point storm, especially since LaMarcus Aldridge finally got going. After the big man's 17-point first half, the Warriors had to adjust their defense and made a gamble that ended up winning them the game.
Determined to amputate the head of the Spurs offense—Aldridge—the Warriors were more than happy to double the post and live with the result, this being open corner three-point shooters. The Spurs went 0-of-9.
"It's tricky," Kerr said. "You want to double-team, but you don't want to give up threes. You don't want to give up easy buckets, so you have to pick and choose. It's not that easy to figure out when to go, when not to, and so you know, we're trying to keep him off rhythm, and they are trying to keep us off rhythm defensively at the same time. So it's just kind of, you know, a little chess match going on as far as the doubles are concerned."
Help defense stunted toward Aldridge but stayed attached to defenders in Game 1:
In Game 2's second half, the Warriors sent a full-on double-team:
"I thought the Spurs did a great job of countering the way we defended him in Game 1," Kerr said. "They beat us on a lot of plays, a lot of actions. We're going to have to look at that and re-evaluate how we're going to guard them. So he's a load. I mean, I've said it many times: I think [Aldridge is] the best low-post scorer in the NBA. What makes him tough is that he can also step outside and shoot the jumper. He had 12 free throws tonight. They hammered us inside quite a bit, but we stayed with it."
The double-team opens someone up for a shot or drive. The ensuing drive commands help, which leaves the corners open. If you're getting nine open-corner three-pointers in a game, you're getting the best possible looks you can. If you can't make any of them, you're not going to beat the Warriors.
"We did much better," Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. "We executed much better. We grinded better. But that's what happens when you play a great team. Maybe it's not enough."