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The Golden State Warriors visited the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night under much different circumstances than their last trip to the AT&T Center on March 11.
In that game, the reeling Warriors opted to rest their core after a terrible run of form without the injured Kevin Durant. and lost their third game in a row and fifth in seven, a genuinely concerning stretch for a squad used to such overwhelming success in Steve Kerr’s three seasons as head coach. The Spurs pulled to within just a half-game of the Warriors for the top seed in the West and appeared to be the team to beat for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
It was hard to believe, but the Warriors looked to be in a genuine crisis. Wednesday’s 110-98 Warriors win offered a significant contrast.
Golden State staked the Spurs a 15-0 lead that eventually became a 22-point first-quarter margin, but a stronger second quarter gave way to a dominant second half and convincing victory. Still without Durant, the Warriors looked eminently comfortable despite a discouraging early hole and controlled a road game against the second-best team in the league, just one night after doing the same against the third-best Houston Rockets. Road back-to-backs don’t come more impressive, and the Warriors now have a 3 1/2-game lead in the West that looks insurmountable with only seven left to play. Just imagine what they’ll look like when Durant soon makes his expected return.
Of course, after roughly four minutes the Warriors looked headed for a blowout loss.
The Spurs scored the game’s first 15 points in only 4:02 of action and eventually extended that early margin to 29-7 with fewer than four minutes left to play. It was as one-sided as that score looks — the Spurs made shots, the Warriors struggled to accomplish basic tasks such as securing rebounds, and the result looked rather secure, no matter how much time the clock showed.
Then, slowly but surely, the Warriors chipped away at the lead. They got to within 33-17 at the end of the first quarter, cut it to within single digits for the first time around the midway point of the second, and entered halftime down just 57-54. The trend continued into the second half, where the Warriors grabbed their first lead after just 80 seconds of third-quarter play. They never trailed again and led comfortably enough late to send Spurs fans to an early exit.
A combined 67 points in the second and third quarters stand out most in the box score, but anyone who watched this game will say that the Warriors won with defense. Four Spurs finished with between 16 and 19 points, but the team shot just 41 percent for the game despite that scintillating start and had to work hard on seemingly every possession. The Warriors’ job on Kawhi Leonard deserves special notice — he saw a combination of defenders, including Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, and finished with 19 points on inefficient 7-of-20 shooting with five turnovers.
But, you know, the Warriors offense was just dandy, as well. Golden State shot 51.1 percent from the field, made 13-of-26 3-pointers, knocked down all 11 of its free throws, and dished out 31 assists in an all-encompassing performance.
Much of the damage came via the pick-and-roll, where Stephen Curry and assorted others diced up Spurs big men Pau Gasol and David Lee on many occasions. The numbers are not pretty, and suggest that San Antonio could have significant defensive issues inside against certain playoff opponents:
ESPN Stats & Info: So far Warriors have shot 5-of-7 vs Lee as primary defender and 3-of-5 vs Gasol as primary for 18 points combined
— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) March 30, 2017
Or maybe the Warriors are in a class of their own. Curry (29 points on 4-of-8) and Klay Thompson (23 points on 4-of-9) led the 3-point barrage and kept the Spurs’ defense off-balance throughout, but their success went beyond mere hot shooting.
That’s especially true of Curry, whose play during Durant’s absence has not touched his peerless 2016-17 MVP form, but has found an elite level all its own. His control of the offense has been nearly flawless of late, showing that his mental game is arguably now just as impressive as his famous ability to pull up from anywhere on the court.
Worse yet for opponents, Durant’s time on the shelf seems to have allowed a few bench players to ease into their roles prior to the playoffs. Veteran big man David West made that statement on Wednesday, finishing with 15 points (7-of-11 FG), five assists, four rebounds, two blocks, and a plus-23 in 22 minutes.
West was downright dominant in the fourth quarter, and more performances like this one will ensure that Golden State has several interior options to match up with different opponents this spring. This team will never be especially deep, but with this kind of star power, it only takes a few role players to step up.
Plus, it now looks as if Kerr will have the opportunity to rest players late this season without putting the No. 1 seed in serious jeopardy. San Antonio already had the season series with two wins, but Golden State would now have to lose at least three games in their final seven contests to lose home-court advantage. With only one road game left and four meetings against lottery teams, the Warriors would have to collapse to meet that fate. It looks like only a matter of time before they clinch.
Simply put, it’s now hard to list any other team as favorite to win the NBA title. Durant’s reintroduction will take some time, but a pre-playoff return and first-round meeting with a No. 8 seed hovering around .500 should be enough to ease him back in. Last spring proved that anything can happen to block those plans, but the signs are good. Teams just aren’t supposed to look this formidable without a superstar.
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