Well, at least this time we got a game. Even though Tim Duncan started the game in the same place he began the last one.
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The San Antonio Spurs avenged their 30-point loss to the Golden State Warriors from earlier in the season on Saturday night, downing the league’s top team with an 87-79 conquest. The league’s top defensive team (by, like, a whole heck of a lot) showed off to a nationally-televised audience why many consider them to be just a half-stride behind the defending champs.
Duncan sat out the drubbing from earlier in 2016, and came off the bench in this win – playing just eight minutes and scoring only one point. LaMarcus Aldridge shifted up to the pivot position for San Antonio, atoning for an embarrassing turn in his last meeting with Golden State. He scored 26 points and added 13 rebounds, sealing the game down the stretch from his home on the left block.
Warriors guard Stephen Curry was forced into his worst game of the season. He was repeatedly unable to use San Antonio’s pressure against itself, missing 14 of 18 shots. The MVP favorite missed his first seven three-pointers before hitting a typically ridiculous long bomb in the third quarter; but that hardly shifted the tide. Curry went on to miss his next four attempts from long range.
Astoundingly, considering the Warriors entered the game having won 62 of 68 games, the Spurs win put San Antonio just three games in back of Golden State in what still feels like a race for the league’s best record.
How did San Antonio do it? Well, they played one of their best games of the season. Which, if we’re honest, wasn’t all that different for most of their wins this year. This group is that good.
With Warriors center Andrew Bogut out with what could be a season-altering big toe injury, Golden State went small on the second night of a back to back with Draymond Green at center, with Brandon Rush moving his way into the starting lineup. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich countered by sitting Duncan, hoping that an engaged Aldridge and starting Boris Diaw would help in his team’s attempts to cover Curry.
The scheme worked. Even Curry’s drives to the basket were harried and contested, as every Spur on the court did a fantastic job at switch on screens with Stephen and taking him out of his comfort zones. Which, as you’ll recall, start from about the half-court line and reach all the way to the goal.
Aldridge said Duncan "didn't pout" and was very positive with his coaching during game: "He's just a great person."
— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) March 20, 2016
Aldridge may have led the game in scoring, but Kawhi Leonard once again acted as San Antonio’s best player. His offensive rebound with just under 23 seconds left clinched the game, and he finished with 18 points, 14 boards, two blocks and four assists. Diaw, meanwhile, hit his first six shots on his way to a 14-point night, and while guard Danny Green frustrated at times by being in the wrong place offensively, his defense was impeccable.
Meanwhile, the Warriors just couldn’t hang. The team that leads the NBA in averaging over 115 points per game couldn’t hit 80 for the first time since 2014, the final season of Mark Jackson’s underwhelming coaching career.
Fatigue may have played a part, as Golden State did work in Dallas the night before (this was the team's sixth game in nine days, with Andre Iguodala joining Bogut on the shelf), and nerves certainly were an issue initially for the defending champs. The team was constantly dismayed by a poor night out for the game’s referees, but the bad whistles were shared equally by both sides – this was a game that was sadly full of make-up calls.
None of this should take away from San Antonio’s brilliant night out, however. As Dan Devine noted on Friday, the Spurs can act as a rather pedestrian defensive outfit when Tim Duncan sits, and yet the team played suffocating basketball on that end in both the eight minutes he worked, and the 40 he did not.
Whether or not this sort of dedication, effort and precision can be kept up for a seven game series is still up for debate, a debate that will likely have to rage on for yet another two months – despite the fact that Golden State and San Antonio will face each other two more times in the regular season.
What we do know is that this dream Western Conference finals matchup can’t get here soon enough.
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