Warriors’ struggle before trouncing Spurs somehow bodes well for both

AP
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We’ve all been waiting for this season to show us exactly what it is. It opened ominously with the injury of Gordon Hayward, then sat dormant as little injuries picked off players here and there. Earl Watson got fired, I suppose. We didn’t get any national anthem protests, or wild trades. At least not yet.

The league is still waiting to see what the Phoenix Suns will do with the shadowbanned Eric Bledsoe. The Cleveland Cavaliers are terrible, but to what extent that matters is still up for debate. It’s one that is asked every season and answered only through the passage of time.

So instead we’ve sat here, gratefully watching plays we missed over the long summer lull. Plays like this:

Meanwhile, Thursday’s matchup between the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs was always going to be one of intrigue, even as coach Gregg Popovich announced that star Kawhi Leonard didn’t have a specific timetable for his return from a quadriceps injury.

The game itself certainly did not disappoint.

In classic Spurs fashion, San Antonio came out landing punches on the reigning champions. At the end of the first quarter, the Spurs were up by nine points as LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, and Patty Mills led the way. The pattern continued through the second, with the Warriors going into the half down 55-48 to their Western Conference rivals.

That’s when the Warriors turned on the jets.

Golden State took their first lead a few minutes into the third quarter, and even then it took a gigantic effort on defense to stall Aldridge & Co. The Warriors held San Antonio to zero made 3-pointers in the second half, and therein stood the answer to their 20-point victory.

Of course, without Leonard or the still-injured Tony Parker, it was hardly a fair fight for the Warriors. But in their win, we learned enough about both teams to be able to at least start tracing the shape of what the season will look like for these teams.

First, and perhaps less important, is what happens to Golden State when they get punched in the mouth. What happens in November to the Warriors is maybe one of the least important things to pay attention to in the NBA. But hidden in what makes Golden State great — their defensive ability — was what has made them irrepressible these past few season. That is, the offensive threats they can rely on interchangeably on any given night.

The Warriors needed a 27 point effort from Klay Thompson as their leader on a night when their bench depth didn’t give them much of anything. Eight players came off the pine for Steve Kerr and scored a combined 20 points on 7-of-28 shooting. Gross.

And while Draymond Green, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant weren’t exactly dormant, it’s largely been a combination of star power and bench depth that has made the Warriors such a juggernaut offensively — even if the highlight reels are all lighting-quick catch-and-shoot threes. On Thursday, it was the depth between those stars that kept Golden State afloat, and perhaps continues to dash the idea that Thompson himself is extraneous to the team’s success.

For San Antonio, the first half thumping of the Warriors is less clear. Yes, Aldridge appears to be back on the path to All-Stardom, but with the caveat that Leonard has yet to play a game for Popovich this year. That’s both encouraging and worrying if you’re familiar with Aldridge’s history.

The former Portland Trail Blazers centerpiece famously had a discussion with Popovich over the summer, admitting that he wasn’t happy in San Antonio with his new role. The worry for Aldridge — who has struggled to enjoy being second fiddle to the likes of Brandon Roy, Damian Lillard, and now Leonard — is that he cannot be the top option on an elite team. So too should Spurs fans be wary that Leonard could regress if and when Leonard returns.

San Antonio came out and showed they are still a Popovich-coached team. They weren’t afraid of what is likely the most powerful squad ever to grace an NBA court, and instead took them down with smart, measured play in the absence of their No. 1 option.

And even if Popovich’s late-game ejection couldn’t rally them to even a single-digit loss, they still know they have the coaching and talent to run with the Warriors come playoff time. If they have Leonard, of course.

Thursday night’s victory for Golden State, 112-92, didn’t go as planned, but it did give us our first rematch of the playoff series from last season. The final score may not have informed us whether San Antonio will ever get their shot to top Golden State in the postseason, but it should let us know what these games will be like from October to April. It’s just a shame we have to wait until February 10 to see it all again.