Somehow, the NBA survived its regular season and first round of the postseason with enough players to field eight teams, so we’re just going to go ahead and begin the conference semifinals. The minds behind Ball Don’t Lie are going to preview each second-round series, with Kelly Dwyer going against character for a more genial take, Dan Devine bringing his inimitable mixture of both order and bedlam, along with Eric Freeman’s legendary look inside the reputations of some of the series’ key fixtures.
We continue with the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors.
Kelly Dwyer’s Guide Vocal
The Golden State Warriors played the San Antonio Spurs reasonably well during the regular season because the Golden State Warriors are a reasonably-good basketball team. This is part of the reason that many of us faraway observers are making a too-easy comparison with this Golden State team, one that links them directly to the squad that made the 2007 postseason so wonderful, an offense-first lineup that ran like mad and played incredibly small ball for goofball coach Don Nelson.
This Warriors team, especially in the wake of David Lee’s hip injury, has gone very small as it begins the game (though technically doesn’t “start” the game, as Carl Landry get the nod) with Harrison Barnes at power forward. Stephen Curry is still encouraged to fire up a long three-pointer early in the shot clock at any given opportunity, as he’s rightfully earned the greenest light in the game, and backcourt partner Klay Thompson will never be mistaken for anything more than a gunner, and little else.
There’s more orthodoxy here than you’d think, though. Mainly because the Andrew Bogut we knew and loved prior to his shoulder injury in 2010 has returned to the fold. The 7-footer went from notably bothered to brilliant in the team’s first round win over the Denver Nuggets, attacking the Nugget defense with his skip passing and movement, and severely curtailing Denver’s ability to score in the paint in the half-court, or off of screen and rolls. It was a fantastic return to form, and at the best possible time.
And now, the Spurs.
It seems unfair to point to, but there is a significant chance that Warriors coach Mark Jackson (who has done a fabulous job in terms of personnel, rotation choices, Xs and Os and with inspiration this season) could be outclassed by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich in Jackson’s second playoff series as coach. The Spurs have known for over a week, by now, that the Warriors held the upper hand in the series against Denver, and the team has had ample time to prepare for Golden State’s derring-do in transition, and movement in the half-court.
The Spurs’ offense will need some time to round back into shape. The week “off” between the team’s playoff win over the Los Angeles Lakers and the first game of the conference semifinals no doubt did Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw (who will be active for the first time in exactly a month in Monday’s Game 1) quite well, but reaction time and game-level muscle memory tends to take some time to recover. On top of that, the Spurs won’t have still-hobbled center Tiago Splitter around to set screens and take up space, and Diaw will be out of shape following a scary back injury.
Golden State can certainly steal one. In fact, they better steal one; because once the Spurs start whipping the ball around again and making the extra pass, even the re-introduction of an All-Defensive worthy Andrew Bogut won’t be enough to stay in front of the cutters.
All of this lends to what should be a fascinating series. Even a team as seemingly staid as the Spurs has proven that they can re-invent themselves several times over the course of a regular or postseason, and the young Warriors are still finding new wrinkles that allow them to survive despite that inexperience. The idea that a team as respected and legendary as the Spurs can be taken down just because we live in an NBA era that allows point guard to take endless 25 footers that go in 45 percent of the time is remarkable news. The Spurs are going to have to dig their trenches with an entirely new set of tools, while facing a completely different type of enemy. These aren’t Nellie’s Warriors. This isn’t a Phoenix Suns outfit led by Steve Nash. This is the new craze, the new fad, and yet it’s helmed by two forces in Curry and Bogut that exude fundamental smarts and appropriate daring.
If the Spurs aren’t careful, they’ll have a series on their hands.
The one problem with that? These are the San Antonio Spurs. They’re always careful.
PREDICTION: Spurs in 5.
Contribute to the Chaos with Dan Devine
For as much as we try to study and analyze every aspect of NBA life these days, in every playoff series, there are unpredictable elements – a player, a tendency, a set, a decision, etc. – that can tilt a moment on its ear, change the complexion of a game or even determine the outcome of a series. For each matchup during this postseason, Dan Devine will look for those X-factors most likely to wreak havoc over the next seven games.
(The phrase "Contribute to the chaos” comes from the song “Twin Size Mattress” by the band The Front Bottoms, which Dan likes a lot.)
San Antonio Spurs: Be yourself.
I know: That’s not really chaotic. But against a Warriors team that’s probably going to want to force changes to suits its own style (see below), the biggest statement the Spurs can make will probably be to stick to what they do best.
The Spurs’ motion-heavy offense relies on spacing the floor and penetrating the paint off pick-and-roll actions expertly triggered by the likes of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, who compromise the defense, gain the lane, read the rotations and look to either attack for their own offense, kick out to shooters left open by collapsing help or hit their big men on rolls to the basket or pops to the elbows. San Antonio’s excellent at this, ranking sixth in the league this season in points produced per possession used by ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll, and fourth in the points produced when hitting the roll man, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting data. They hunt those open perimeter looks, ranking seventh in the league in 3-point attempts per game and third in tries from the ultra-attractive, high-efficiency short corners. And when they get them, they bury them, posting the league’s fourth-best 3-point shooting mark this season.
This is bad news for the Warriors, because Mark Jackson’s team finished 24th in the league in points-per-possession allowed to pick-and-roll ball handlers this season and gave up more 3-point attempts per game (23) than any other team in the NBA. While Golden State offered sterner defense in the pick-and-roll game in Round 1 (thanks in part to quicker small-ball lineups and a huge defensive performance from center Andrew Bogut), they still let the Denver Nuggets take 22.5 long balls per game. But while the Nuggets fielded virtually no reliable long-range shooters, the Spurs are blessed with an abundance, with six players hitting at least 37 percent of their 3s this season, Gary Neal still very much a threat despite a down season from deep, and Parker and Ginobili both more than capable of cashing in on open looks beyond the arc.
If Golden State’s guard trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Jarrett Jack can’t shut down (or at least slow) the Spurs’ dribble penetration, San Antonio figures to have a field day from deep. If they’re able to do that while staying largely in their base personnel and taking turns throwing a variety of long-armed, attentive defenders (headlined by Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green) and star Stephen Curry, the combination should prove too much for Golden State to overcome ... and all they’ve got to do is be themselves.
Golden State Warriors: Keep Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green humming enough to force the Spurs to go smaller.
While some of us expected the Warriors to suffer mightily after David Lee was sidelined with a torn right hip flexor in Game 1 of the first round, the All-Star’s absence forced coach Mark Jackson to make the strategic shift of moving rookies Barnes from small forward to power forward in his starting lineup, and it paid off in a major way.
The 6-foot-8 wing’s quickness enabled him to blow by the likes of Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler on the perimeter and his long-range stroke (40.6 percent in the opening round) forced Denver’s four-men to extend the defense. The script was similar when fellow rookie Green came in off the bench, giving the Nuggets frontcourt fits not only with his rugged play down low and defensive activity, but also with his shooting (6 for 12 from 3 in the series) and ability to attack closeouts. Barnes and Green combined to average 24.6 points per game over the final five games of Golden State’s first-round win -- more than double their total regular-season average -- and, perhaps even more importantly, demanded more defensive attention than Denver wanted to pay them, creating additional space and opportunity in the Warriors’ half-court offense, which, as you recall, their teammates used expertly in ousting the Nuggets.
The Spurs’ defense, which finished as the NBA’s third-stingiest in terms of points allowed per possession this season, figures to be a tougher nut for the Warriors to crack, but if the duo of Barnes and Green can continue to win individual matchups against the big men San Antonio feature alongside Tim Duncan, the task could become a bit less daunting.
The Spurs’ preferred interior pairing this season has been Duncan and Tiago Splitter, and Duncan’s likely to be matched up with a surprisingly resurgent Bogut. Splitter is a capable defender and has held opposing power forwards to a well-below-average effective field goal percentage this season, but Barnes would enjoy a significant foot-speed advantage over the 6-foot-11 Brazilian, even before the sprained left ankle that Splitter suffered in Game 3 of the opening round, which kept him out of San Antonio’s series-clinching Game 4 win and has him listed as a game-time decision for Game 1 against Golden State. And while Green’s not quite as fleet of food as Barnes, the same would be true of the 6-foot-7 Michigan State product when matched up against Spurs reserves Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair and Boris Diaw, who’s probable for Game 1 after a month on the shelf following surgery to remove a cyst from the base of his spine.
Neither Barnes nor Green set San Antonio on fire during the teams’ regular-season series, with the former averaging 8.8 points per game on 37.5 percent shooting and the latter chipping in 4.3 points and 5.3 rebounds on 46.2 percent shooting in just under 15 minutes per outing. Then again, neither was much of a killer against Denver in the regular season, but injury-spurred shifts in matchups, responsibilities and role definitions conspired to make the rookies more dangerous.
It’s unlikely that Gregg Popovich would look to tilt San Antonio’s help defense in any way if the Spurs’ secondary bigs have as much trouble shutting down the Warriors’ small-ball fours as the Nuggets’ did, because that would result in attention shifting away Golden State’s much more dangerous options (namely, sharpshooter Stephen Curry). But if Barnes and Green can keep knocking down shots and make the Spurs pay for staying big, that could result in Pop moving to more lineups that shift Leonard to power forward and Green to small forward along with some combination of Parker, Ginobili, Neal and/or Cory Joseph in the backcourt, and such lineups haven’t performed nearly as well this season as the Spurs’ killer starting five. (It could also mean – heaven forefend! – that Tracy McGrady gets more than the 5:15 second cameo that he got as the Spurs finished off their sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers.)
If it doesn’t, though – if Pop chooses to stay big and leave gifted, versatile defenders Leonard and Green free to be able to clamp down on Curry and Klay – then Golden State could continue to enjoy an unexpected source of offensive punch that introduces a little uncertainty into the proceedings for as long as the rooks’ shots continue to fall.
PREDICTION: Spurs in 5.
Eric Freeman’s Reputations Index
An NBA athlete can make great strides in the offseason, improve over the course of the 82-game schedule, and see his fortunes change due to a freak injury. Yet, even in a league where granular analysis reveals untold nuances in a single player’s game, the postseason still determines his legacy. A star can become a legend or be seen as lacking some necessary quality to win; a role player can lock down a lucrative local endorsement contract or search for a new home; a youngster can ascend to a new level of fame or fall into irrelevance. The Reputations Index is your guide to what’s at stake in each postseason series.
Mark Jackson: When the Warriors hired in Mark Jackson in 2011, critics (including this one) questioned the move because we had nothing to go off to assess Jackson’s readiness for the job. He’d never coached at any level — we were to work off his excellent reputation as a knowledgeable player and his time as a color commentator for ESPN. It’s not the move was necessarily bad — it’s that it was a total shot in the dark.
Over his first two seasons, Jackson has done quite well, leading the Warriors to the playoffs and generally seeming to understand his strengths and weaknesses. Although assistant coach (and very hot head coach prospect) Mike Malone handles much of the Xs-and-Os of the job, it’s impressive that Jackson understood (or was willing to accept) that he’d need help in that area. Instead, he thrives primarily as a motivator and player manager, someone who understands what players are going through and knows how to put them in the best situation to win. That doesn’t put Jackson among the best coaches in the league, but it has made him a figure worthy of respect.
The Warriors are largely overmatched in this series, and it wouldn’t be a tremendous shock to see them swept (although I do think they’ll win at least one game at home). But it does provide Jackson (and Malone, by extension) an opportunity to prove himself on a grander scale, to vault from “nice enough” to the sort of complete coach who teams do everything to keep.
The Entirety of the San Antonio Spurs: Certain teams are beyond criticism. The Spurs have accomplished so much during the Duncan/Popovich era that the afterglow shines upon all players associated with it. No matter how disappointing their postseason finish appears on paper, they are still the Spurs, an unimpeachable organization with admirable philosophies and the sort of professionalism that myth tells us built America into the infallible country it is today.
It is very unlikely that the Spurs will lose to the Warriors, but even if it does happen it’s hard to imagine that result making them look too bad. Perhaps more people would question if their regular-season dominance has any correlation to playoff success, or if it’s time to make greater personnel changes in the hopes of finding a roster with better chances at contending for a championship. Frankly, I’m not sure it matters. The Spurs are the Spurs, a team with a clear identity and acceptable business practices. They will persist until they decide they are no longer needed.
PREDICTION: Spurs in 5.