Never have two teams playing this well met this late in the season in the NBA.
The 62-6 Golden State Warriors travel to take on the 58-10 San Antonio Spurs (who are 34-0 at home this season) — that’s a combined 89 percent winning percentage. (The previous record was a Bulls/Magic game in April 1996, where the teams had a combined 81.6 percent winning percentage, according to the NBA. Chicago won.) The Spurs are on pace to win 70 games this season and still enter this game four games back of the Warriors.
The last time these teams met, Golden State thumped San Antonio 120-90, but not even die-hard Warriors fans can’t expect a repeat of that night. Heck, there are reasons to write this game off — the Warriors are banged up and on the second night of a road back-to-back, having to play their stars in the fourth quarter of a win over Dallas Friday. Still, this game may be the best way to judge these teams and what they will look like if/when they meet in the Western Conference Finals. Yes, these two play again in April (twice), but by then both coaches will be resting players, and more importantly neither coach will want to tip their strategy hand at that point — those games will have all the Xs and Os details of the Pro Bowl.
Here are three key things to watch on this Saturday night showdown.
1) How much will Golden State miss Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut? Last time these teams met, it was San Antonio missing a key piece — Tim Duncan, still the Spurs’ defensive lynchpin, was out. This time he is back, and it is the Warriors who will be missing a couple of key players.
Andrew Bogut has a strained left big toe suffered Friday against Dallas and is expected to miss Saturday’s game — that’s a big body and smart defender the Warriors need against the LaMarcus Aldridge/Duncan front line of San Antonio (Bogut draws Duncan). Remember, the Warriors can’t turn to Festus Ezeli, he remains out with a knee injury. This likely means more Anderson Varejao, who brings some energy and some rebounding, but generally looks lost and slow in the Warriors’ defensive schemes.
However, the bigger blow is missing Iguodala. He helps settle down the second unit, serving as a secondary ball handler, plus he brings defense to that unit. Iguodala is also an essential part of the small ball “death lineup” that is Golden State’s ultimate weapon — without his defense and ability to score those small lineups are less threatening. Remember, we are talking about the Finals MVP here, he will be missed a lot. Especially against a Spurs bench that has been a dominant force of late.
2) Can San Antonio slow Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson? The first time these teams met, Curry had 37 points and hit 6-of-9 threes. Curry and Thompson are coming off a game where they dropped 70 on Dallas. Golden State has had some struggles of late, they have had more than a couple of games where they have looked sloppy (particularly on defense), but the shooting of Curry and Thompson simply bail them out. If San Antonio is going to beat the Warriors (now or in a playoff series), they need to find a way not to let the Splash Brothers go off and dominate.
The Spurs have the best defense in the NBA — by far. This season the Spurs have allowed just 95.7 points per 100 possessions, three per 100 better than the second place Hawks (and five better than the fifth-place Warriors). With Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the Spurs have two quality perimeter defenders they can throw at the hot hand. However, Popovich seems to prefer Leonard on Draymond Green and Danny Green on Curry, which allows the Spurs to switch the dreaded Curry/Green pick-and-roll (it’s about as effective a plan as any team has to deal with that play). The challenge is that leaves Tony Parker on Thompson, which could be a field day for Klay, who can shoot over the top of Parker or post him up. The Spurs are usually good at hiding Parker, but there is nowhere to hide against Golden State. It will help the Spurs this time around to have Duncan back in the paint, both to challenge shots and to quarterback their entire defense.
Will all that be enough? Remember last meeting Curry spun Leonard around and made the game’s best perimeter defender look helpless. Curry is on another level right now.
3) Can Golden State disrupt improved play of LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard? Last time these teams met Aldridge was 2-of-9 shooting for five points. Draymond Green drew the defensive assignment most of the night and despite giving up four inches it was Green who was the disruptive force — he did not let Aldridge get to his spots on the floor or feel comfortable. Green’s length still challenged Aldridge’s shots. After the game, Aldridge was so frustrated he deactivated his Twitter and Instagram accounts (although he denied the two were not related).
Of late, Aldridge has been a lot more comfortable. He has developed a real chemistry with Tony Parker and since the All-Star break Aldridge is averaging 20 points a game on 52.6 percent shooting (an impressive true shooting percentage of 58.6 percent), and his assists are up while his turnovers are down. Aldridge has found his groove, can Green push him out of it again?
Then there is Leonard, who is growing in confidence daily on the offensive end. He had 16 points on six shots in the first meeting, but expect more out of him in this get together. Since the All-Star break Leonard has averaged 24.3 points a game, is shooting 46 percent from three, with a 62.1 true shooting percentage. This may be the matchup where the Warriors most miss having Iguodala to throw at Leonard.
The real danger is when Aldridge and Leonard are paired — the Spurs are +18.1 points per 100 possessions when those two are on the court together post All-Star break. Add Danny Green to the Leonard/Aldridge combo and the Spurs are +25.2 per 100 since the All-Star break, with an offensive rating of 116.2 per 100 possessions. They will be a test for the Warriors’ defense (which has struggled of late due to the injuries).