The Golden State Warriors will fight to stave off elimination on Thursday when they welcome the San Antonio Spurs to Oracle Arena for Game 6 of their Western Conference semifinals series. After a 109-91 Game 5 rout that saw Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combine for just 13 points on 6 for 22 shooting in 70 total minutes, the lion's share of the questions have focused on how Warriors coach Mark Jackson can get his vaunted backcourt back on track and firing on all cylinders in a bid to extend the series to a deciding seventh game back in San Antonio.
Interestingly enough, just weeks after telling anyone who'd listen just how good and important he thought his sharpshooting duo was, Jackson now seems much more interested in the other end of the floor, according to Carl Steward of the San Jose Mercury News:
"It's not about their shooting," Jackson said flatly. "We didn't play well. We own it, and we move forward. We're disappointed across the board, and it is what it is. Now we make the proper adjustments, because we don't want to put together a similar game." [...]
Neither player was present before practice nor made available to the media to offer any explanations or solutions for what happened in Game 5. In their stead, Jackson poured cold water on their combined shortcomings as the main reason for the loss and spread the blame team-wide.
"We can make it about [Curry and Thompson], but for us, that's not what it's about," the coach said. "It's a four-point game in the third quarter. [The Spurs] shot 72 percent in the first quarter and scored 37 points. That has nothing to do with Klay Thompson or Steph Curry shooting the basketball."
To a certain extent, that's true. But only to a certain extent.
If San Antonio's going to shoot 51.9 percent from the floor and 47.6 percent from 3-point range, tic-tac-toe the Warriors to death to the tune of 30 assists on 40 made baskets, and generate 44 points in the paint primarily off the penetration of Tony Parker, as the Spurs did in Game 5, then yes, Golden State's in serious trouble for reasons that have nothing to do with their stars' shooting woes. That's what many of us expected to happen all along; that's why many of us (myself included) picked the Spurs to advance in this series in relatively short order. What changed that math, though, was the capacity of Curry and Thompson to combust.
The Spurs were pretty awesome offensively in Game 1, with six players in double figures, 13 made 3-pointers and a 50 percent mark from long range, and an offensive efficiency (109 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com's stat tool) that outstripped their seventh-best-in-the-league regular-season average. Still, the Warriors were in position to take that game primarily because Curry was ridiculous and Thompson and Barnes were able to take advantage of their individual defensive matchups away from the attention Curry was drawing. The story was a little bit different in Game 2, with both teams stepping up their defensive intensity and neither roster looking especially dangerous from the floor ... save for Thompson, whose 29-point first half provided the cushion Golden State needed to be able to withstand another late San Antonio run and even the series.
That was what made the Warriors dangerous — the presence of two players who could become untouchable for minutes at a time, first taking advantage of what the Spurs defense was designed to give them, and then bending the adjusted coverages in ways that created mismatches and opportunities for talented teammates to exploit. Since their individual early-series explosions, though, that presence hasn't really been present, as Spurs Nation's Dan McCarney notes — Curry's just 35.6 percent from the field since the third quarter of Game 1, and Thompson's shooting 32.7 percent since the first half of Game 2.
Lots of credit for that belongs to the man-to-man defense of Danny Green (on Curry) and Kawhi Leonard (on Thompson), although they don't really seem too into taking credit for it.
“We limited some of their touches and limited some of their shots, kind of denying them a little bit,” Green told Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News. “They missed a good amount, and I think it's due to fatigue a little bit and playing a lot of minutes every other day. Luckily, for now, they aren't hitting as many shots as they did in the first two games.”
“It's part me getting used to [Thompson], and part him missing shots,” Leonard told the Express-News' Jeff McDonald. “You just try to keep pressure on him and not give him an easy look.”
BBall Breakdown's Coach Nick has a really nice look at how Leonard has kept that pressure on Thompson, and how Gregg Popovich has been able to keep Curry off-balance with a variety of different defensive looks (with a little help from a balky ankle):
The increased attention on denying Curry and Thompson clean looks and forcing other Warriors to beat them has paid dividends for the Spurs. Pop and company might not love watching Harrison Barnes, Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry combine to average 51.3 points per game over the last three contests, but it's hard to imagine they're not pretty pleased that the three complementary players took 47.7 percent of Golden State's shots during that stretch, while Curry and Thompson (who took 50 percent of the Warriors' shots in Game 1 and 54.8 percent in Game 2) combined to take just 34 percent of Golden State's field-goal attempts in Games 3, 4 and 5.
You can chalk up Curry's ineffective Game 5 performance in part to the ill effects of that ankle sprain, note that he got multiple makeable looks and bet that the breakout star of the postseason won't again be "terrible, plain and simple" after rest and treatment. Recalibrating Thompson after a whisper-quiet performance that saw him not attempt a 3-point shot for the first time all season, though? That might be a tougher task.
“It felt weird out there — that is strange,” Thompson said after Game 5, according to Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News. “Kawhi, he’s a good defender … I’ve got to make plays in another areas and find offense in other ways.”
That's true, but the need for him to make plays in this particular area and find offense in this particular way outranks the need for him to diversify his portfolio at this stage of the game.
San Antonio can live with Barnes, Jack and Landry having to continue to prove themselves at the expense of additional looks for Curry and Thompson; with only two games left and Golden State needing both, the Warriors can't. It's incumbent on Jackson to recognize that, reach into the bag of tricks that brought us the "elevator doors" and "figure 8" screen games and pull out some new ways to give Curry and Thompson some room. If he can't, he'll have plenty of time to hone his defense-first speeches during the offseason.