Spurs vs. Warriors: The backstory
It’s hard to make much of the meetings between the Spurs and Warriors this season — three games, two wins by San Antonio. The first win was on Opening Night, the second win came in March with four starters out for the Warriors and the final game, a 110-89 win for Golden State, came on March 29.
If their on-court tussles have been limited, that doesn’t change the fact that they have been on a collision course since training camp opened, with the Spurs (61 wins) running second to Golden State (67 wins) for almost the entire season. Not surprisingly, the Warriors and Spurs have been 1-2 in margin of victory throughout the year, too.
Golden State arrives in the conference finals for the third straight year, but having used up as little stress as possible in the process, winning eight straight games by an average margin of 16.5 points. Going back to the regular season, the Warriors have gone 23-1 since mid-March. The Spurs, however, come in a bit tattered, surviving two grueling series against the Grizzlies and the Rockets with point guard Tony Parker injured in the latter series. That forced backup Patty Mills into the starting five and leaves Manu Ginobili as the de facto backup point guard.
Oh and, the Spurs’ best player, Kawhi Leonard, missed a chunk of Game 5 and sat out Game 6 with an ankle injury.
Still, this is a much-anticipated series and has been since the Warriors added Kevin Durant last summer to a core that includes Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The Spurs or Warriors have represented the West in the Finals every year since 2012, but the last time these two teams met in the playoffs was 2013, when the Warriors were just beginning their ascent in the West and the Spurs were still in the midst of their dynasty (they would lose in the Finals in 2013, and win the title in 2014).
So we’ve never really seen a Spurs-Warriors series with both teams at their peak. This will be as close as we have gotten.
The key player
In the most recent game against the Warriors, the Spur who stood out most was veteran center Pau Gasol, who notched 18 points, eight rebounds and five assists off the bench. Coach Gregg Popovich made a change in the series against the Rockets and moved Gasol into the starting five, and it’s unclear whether he will stick with that here in the conference finals.
Most likely, he will, because the Spurs’ big-man depth might be their best chance at negating the Warriors’ offensive advantages. The pairing of Gasol (7-0) and LaMarcus Aldridge (6-11) up front is a challenge for the height-challenged Warriors.
Gasol can do two things to Golden State. First, though he does not shoot a ton of 3s (1.6 per game), he can shoot well enough (53.8 percent from the arc) to stretch out the long-armed Golden State defense. He remains an excellent high post passer, too, and finished Game 6 with 10 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. Second, he remains a good rebounder at age 36. The Warriors are a good rebounding team themselves (they were ninth in rebounding percentage), but the Spurs are better and need to consistently win that rebounding battle to have a chance.
The big number
Let’s go with 0.90 for this one. That’s because both of these teams are very good spot-up shooting teams, and that’s not surprising considering that this series features four of the most efficient spot-up shooters in the league: Curry (1.33 points per possession) and Durant (1.26) for the Warriors, as well as Kawhi Leonard (1.24) and Gasol (1.27) for the Spurs. In the playoffs, Draymond Green has scored 8.0 points per game on spot-up shots, most in the league, and the Spurs’ Danny Green has been fourth with 5.1 points.
The Spurs scored 25.7 points per game this season off spot-up shots, the most in the league, and also led the league in field-goal percentage on spot-up shots, at 42.5 percent. The Warriors were second in spot-up field-goal percentage, at 41.9. It’s an offensive weapon both teams draw on heavily.
But the Warriors are the best team in the league at defending spot-up shooters, allowing just 0.90 points per possession, a reflection on the ability of their small-ball defenders to recover quickly to the perimeter and disrupt shooters. They led the league allowing only 35.0 percent shooting on spot-up shots, and their ability to close out on the likes of Green, Gasol and Leonard will determine whether San Antonio can muster the offense to stay in this series.
Spurs vs. Warriors pick
At full strength, the Warriors would have a challenge on their hands in this series. But with Parker now a scratch after a good start to the playoffs (15.9 points, 52.6 percent shooting) and uncertainty surrounding the status of Leonard’s ankle, the Spurs’ chances at an upset have gotten that much more remote.