The San Antonio Spurs and Golden State met up for just the second of four times this season and unlike their first encounter, this game lived up to the hype.
Well, for the most part anyway.
In a sticky (yep, there will be subtle Dwight Howard jokes in this breakdown) game, with an insane crowd and coaches who just wouldn't stop scowling, the Spurs prevailed. They prevailed in a game that will send us back a couple of decades, to a day where big men ruled the NBA, the post up was profficient and small ball wasn't yet a thing.
With all that being said, it's time to get into an in depth breakdown of the game. Here are my 5 biggest takeaways from the game.
Once Again, Pace Is Everything
In my breakdown of the first encounter of these two sides, I stressed the importance of pace. The Warriors blew the Spurs out at the Roaracle, playing at a pace of around 110 possessions, forcing the Spurs to lift their own pace and commit silly turnovers that allowed the Splash Bros. and co. to get going.
The evidence of this being the key to any game between these two teams is shown by their respective possessions per game. The Spurs rank 24th in the league in pace, at a mere 96 possessions per game, while the Warriors are second to only the crazy Kings, at 102 possessions. The Spurs love to grind games out with their old school two-big lineups and stiffling defense, while the Warriors are always looking to get out in transition, make plays on the break and swing the momentum.
As I mentioned in my 'How to beat the Warriors article', I consider playing at your own pace and not letting the Dubs dictate the flow of the game, the most important fascet of any title contender's hopes of winning the championship.
Today, the Spurs didn't allow the Warriors to get anything remotely near their season mark (or so I think, can't find any stats) for possessions. The steady diet of post ups and running down the shot clock worked like a charm. Unlike their first meeting, this time the Spurs made the Dubs play at their pace and consequently, the Warriors, who aren't used to playing in the 1990s, struggled to find any sort of rhythym.
In the first half, this was especially apparent. The Spurs limited the pace to every extreme. They forced the Warriors into a halfcourt game, which although they are excellent at with their movement, creative sets and overall talent, are much easier to guard than when Draymond, Steph and Klay are running and gunning up the floor. In the first half, the slowed down style of play limited the Warriors to just one three made in fourteen attempts.
Let me simplify things a bit further here. The Spurs have an all-time great defense statistically, but when they faced the Warriors in Golden State's building, they simply weren't used to defending at that type of tempo, leading to 120 being poured on them. When the game is slowed down to a pace that they know, they are already so experienced in defending at that pace so it's far easier for them.
Here's some evidence of how muvh Pop valued pace in that game:
Want to know what the hell that clip meant in the context of pace? Welp, the Warriors got up the court in a hurry and got an easy James Michael McAdoo layup. Sensing the pace is beginning to shift, Gregg Popovich immediately called timeout, even though his team had just gotten out in transition, got the AT&T Center moving and a beautiful dunk.
Spurs Willing To Adapt
The Spurs are a special basketball team. Against 28 basketball teams around the league, they make the other team adjust to their unique style of play. That 29th team, in case you couldn't figure it out, is the team attempting to break the seemingly unbreakable record of 72 wins, set by Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. That team is the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors force you to adjust. Their amazing, revolutionary style of fast, small, three point heavy basketball causes teams to re-think their entire strategy.
Tonight, the Spurs realized after their first encounter, that they wouldn't be able to beat the Warriors by playing their regular lineups. The Warriors exploited them in their first matchup. They destroyed the Spurs' big lineups, attacked any slow footed big that walked on the court and capitalized accordingly. On this occasion, Gregg Popovich knew he had to match the Warriors' small ball group at least to some extent to stop the Warriors from exploiting the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan (who didn't play in game one). Especially since in this game, the Warriors weren't even starting a center. They went to their Draymond Green at the five group from tip, due to injuries to Festus Ezeli and Andrew Bogut.
So, realizing that his usual starting group, that includes the big man pairing of Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge, wasn't going to cut it against the lightning quick Warriors, that had Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green as their big guys, Popovich altered the starting lineup.
He did this by doing something he had only done twice in his entire San Antonio tenure, by benching the greatest power forward of all-time, Tim Duncan. Duncan now has 3 games coming off of the bench and 1,380 as a starter. If you said that it is rare for Duncan to come off of the bench, you'd be dead right. In fact, according to the Insurance Information Institute (whatever that is), seeing a game in which Tim Duncan comes off the bench, is about as likely as you dying in a car crash in your lifetime.
I personally believe that Duncan has been San Antonio's best defensive player. He is the backbone of that team. But Popovich knew that with both Duncan and Aldridge on the court, the ultra small Warriors would find a way to exploit them. So with Aldridge going beserk offensively, Tim Duncan only played 8 minutes the whole game, only two with his partner Aldridge, who he has only played 300 of 1200 minutes without this season.
Actually, the starting lineup that the Spurs used tonight, has been barely used all season, with just 42 total minutes prior to this game.
Their strategy with it worked to perfection too.
Boris Diaw excelled in an area in which LaMarcus Aldridge struggled back in January, which was clearly, defending Draymond Green. Green was devestating in their first meeting. Take a look at this example, in which Green completely destroyed Aldridge's pick and roll defense.
Pop put the slightly faster, fleet-footed Diaw on him tonight and I didn't even see a single time in which Draymond Green was able to do the above.
Aldridge was then able to guard Harrison Barnes, who wasn't able to take advantage of his slower, less athletic foe, going just 3 for 10 from the field. Defenses have done this in the past, with guys like Zach Randolph guarding Barnes in order to hide him, it has never really worked, but maybe Aldridge is just good enough in order for Barnes to not completely destroy his lack of lateral quickness.
The Post Up Will Never Die
Many have said that the post up in today's NBA is practically extinct. But the Spurs proved tonight, that in the right situations, with the right players, it can be incredibly effective.
Against a Warriors team that have become experts at denying post entry, making post players a liability on defense and defending the post with all of their length, the Spurs somehow made the post up be Golden State's downfall and bring a new found sense of relevance to the old school play in the modern day NBA.
LaMarcus Aldridge and Boris Diaw were wrecking balls in the post tonight. Combining for 40 points, on 17 of 32 shooting. Diaw saw the smaller, weaker Harrison Barnes on him in the early stages of the game and dominated him. Meanwhile, Aldridge used (puts on Mark Jackson voice) HIS BIG BOI MOVES, for all of his 26 points, overpowering anyone in his path. What will hurt the Warriors most about their defense on Aldridge, is that a large chunk of his baskets came from the mid-range, a shot that teams like the Warriors are willing to give up.
There are a few things you need to be a successful post up player in the modern NBA, these include, but are not limited to:
1. Being a great passer
2. Picking the right matchups to attack
3. Getting movement before the post up. E.g., not just telling a guy to get into post position.
Both Diaw and Aldridge did this fantastically all game long. Here are some highlights:
Never ever say there isn't a place for the post up in today's NBA.
The Spurs Are Good At That Defense Thing...
Here are the stats.
- Golden State shot 37% from the field, 25% from downtown
- Were just 1/14 from three at halftime
- Held the Splash Brothers to 2 of 19 from three
- Limited Steph Curry to 14 points
- Held the Dubs to just 79 TOTAL points, the Warriors scored 73 in a single HALF against the Mavericks the night before.
Those are some pretty impressive stats.
Getting to the fundamentals, you would've heard a lot over Twitter and a lot from the commentary in-game, that the Spurs were switching everything against the Dubs. While it isn't completely true that they were switching completely everything, when it was even half a possibility that one of Golden State's shooters was going to get semi-open, the Spurs would make a switch. This worked a charm, especially off the ball, where the Warriors love to sneakily to all of their damage.
The Spurs' switching strategy was absolutely brilliant off the ball. If you watch the Warriors enough, the wrinkle that the Warriors love to run to get the pair of Splash Brothers open, is that they screen for each other. It usually works a charm, giving each shooter at least a little bit of separation from their respective defenders. Tonight, there was a different story. Every time the Splash Bros would try to get a bit of that action in there, the Spurs would switch, nullifying any effect it might have.
This strategy seems too good and too easy to be true. In fact, it is. Not every team can do this, it's just that the Spurs have an especially excellent group of perimeter defenders. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are truly magnificent together and were able to shut down anyone they guarded tonight.
The ability to switch as much as they did was made mostly possible by the presence of Boris Diaw. Diaw is a good perimeter defender and is capable of containing guys like Steph Curry, at least for small sample sizes. The regular Curry/Draymond pick and roll that the NBA is yet to find a way to defend, wasn't nearly as effective as it usually is.
...But It Has Holes
Although, I just stressed how great the Spurs' defense is, there were some serious gaps that were pryed open by the Warriors.
Getting back to the switching the Spurs employed. The constant switching on high pick and roll, was shown up by the highly intelligent Warriors attack, especially during the third quarter, when the Spurs went big with David West and Aldridge as their 4/5 pairing.
The Warriors were once again able to get the matchups they wanted in their first game, with Aldridge being stuck on an island with Curry on a couple of occassions.
Golden State even found ways to get a big on Curry with ways I have yet to see this season. There were at least two or three plays in the second half in which in the regular Steph/Draymond pick and roll, Dray became the ball handler, with Curry turning into the screener. It was fascinating to see this and what's even more fascinating is that it worked just a couple of times, with Curry being guarded by Kyle Anderson, LaMarcus Aldridge and others.
If the Spurs want to be able to beat Golden State in a seven game series, they are going to have to find ways of switching Curry pick and rolls without allowing him to have too much of a mismatch. They may have to look at using Kawhi Leonard guarding Draymond Green, which they did try a couple of times, as to allow the matchup, after the switch, to be Kawhi on Steph, the ideal defensive matchup for San Antonio.