This was the series we have been waiting for these playoffs (well, at least before the Finals). Golden State’s small ball, high-scoring attack against San Antonio’s league-best defense where the goal is to play big. A clash of styles. A clash of the teams with the two best regular-season records. After the first round, we need this. Here are three things to watch for.
1) Spurs big lineup vs. the Warriors’ death lineup. San Antonio can carry some optimism about this into this series from the last round against Houston, San Antonio was able to slow the game down and won thanks to their big lineups. They defended the arc well — the Spurs contested 34 of 40 Rockets three-point attempts in Game 6 — and had success taking away drives to the rim by planting Pau Gasol and/or LaMarcus Aldridge near the rim and daring James Harden or anyone else to come all the way in and shoot over them. It worked.
It’s also going to be much harder to do against the Warriors. For one, there is not Clint Capella hanging out at the rim — Gasol and Aldrige are going to have to come out to the arc because Draymond Green and Kevin Durant will drill the three if left open. Beyond that, the Warriors run an array of actions — back door cuts, split actions, screens off the ball, and much more — that will be hard to defend. Golden State’s offense is more diversified than Houston’s, and it simply has better shooters — some days it doesn’t matter if you contest Klay Thompson. Also, on just a very basic level, the Spurs dared the Rockets to beat them from them from the midrange, and Houston would not take the bait (Mike D’Antoni wants threes or shots at the rim). Do that to the Spurs and Durant/Thompson/David West and others will destroy the Spurs from the midrange.
On the other end, the Spurs will need to pound on the Warriors inside. The Warriors have some size to throw at them — JaVale McGee/Zaza Pachulia/West have been a strong trio at the five — but Spurs have to dominate inside in this series. The thing is, a lot of teams have tried that against the Warriors in recent years and it doesn’t go well. Draymond Green makes things difficult — he is the key to the Warriors playing small and still defending inside.
2) Kawhi Leonard vs. Kevin Durant. This matchup is one to watch on both ends. There are few players with the strength and length to hang with Kevin Durant, but the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is one of those guys. Leonard has to handle Durant and not let him be the guy who takes over on the nights Stephen Curry is not on fire from deep (with Danny Green draped all over him). The thing that makes these Warriors more dangerous than the last couple years is on the nights the threes are not falling, the nights that the Curry/Thompson backcourt isn’t dominating, Durant can take over. Remove Durant from the equation and the Warriors are just who they have been the past couple of seasons (a team that made the Finals both years and won a title, but still). The thing is, Durant has had success against Leonard in the past.
Just as interesting, Durant’s length can make things challenging for the guy who is the fulcrum of the Spurs offense. If the Spurs are to have any chance in this series, Leonard has to win this battle and be phenomenal. It’s a lot to ask, but he can do it.
3) Mike Brown, you up for this? At some point during this series, Gregg Popovich is going to make a clever adjustment that the Warriors were not expecting, and with it some Spur we weren’t expecting is going to be a put in a position to succeed. Popovich is the best coach in the game, maybe the best coach ever, for good reason. Steve Kerr would counter, likely with something else unorthodox.
Mike Brown, are you ready for this stage? He’s essentially the renter in the home Kerr built, just trying not to stain the carpet so he gets his security deposit back. Brown has coached teams in this situation before, but he tends to be conventional, do the expected. In this series that may be enough, but it is the toughest coaching job he will have in the playoffs. He is going to have to have his moment in this round.
Prediction: Warriors in 5. The Spurs are the second or third best team in the NBA (them vs. the Cavaliers would be a fascinating series in its own right), but this is just a rough matchup for them. The Warriors have more and better counters to everything the Spurs will try this round. San Antonio may slow the Warriors, but they are going to struggle to score enough to win.