Gregg Popovich had the line of the night following the Golden State Warriors demolition of the San Antonio Spurs, saying he was lucky his GM wasn’t in the locker room or he might have been fired too. The Spurs don’t have any of the dysfunction that surrounds the Cleveland Cavaliers and it still didn’t matter. The problem wasn’t so much what they were doing wrong as it was what the Warriors were doing right. They beat the Cavs by 34 points and the Spurs by 30 and sent a message to the rest of the league about just how dominant they could be.
Maybe the most impressive part of their performance was how they turned San Antonio’s strengths against them. The Spurs have dominated the rest of the NBA by controlling tempo, out-executing teams in the halfcourt and pounding the ball into their big men. They are a team full of wizened playmakers talented enough to keep the ball flying around the court (3rd in assists) without the corresponding amount of turnovers that ball movement can create (8th in the league). From there, they squeeze the life out of their opponents, never letting them get into any type of rhythm and forcing them to score against a set defense that is No. 1 in the league and features the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
None of that worked against Golden State. The Warriors amped up the pressure from the start, using their advantage in athleticism and a roaring home crowd at Oracle to press up on the Spurs ball-handlers and force them into uncharacteristic mistakes. A San Antonio team that averaged only 13.7 turnovers a game nearly doubled that total (25 on Monday) and was on the defensive all night. When you allow the Warriors to go defense to offense and walk into transition 3’s, they are practically unbeatable.
You never want to take too much away from any one regular season game, particularly a blow-out on the road when one team doesn’t have one of its best players. It’s hard to see how Tim Duncan could have changed the outcome of this one, but he would have provided more of a defensive presence at the front of the rim and playing through him in the post might have provided some stability on offense. The Spurs are built around being bigger than their opponents and they had to sacrifice their biggest advantage before the game even started because Duncan was dealing with a lingering knee issue.
At the same time, opposing teams have been trying to beat the Warriors with size for almost two seasons and have been remarkably unsuccessful. The way the league is going, it’s much easier to leverage a speed advantage than a size advantage on offense and it’s much harder for slower teams to defend faster ones than for smaller teams to defend bigger ones. While the Spurs didn’t get to run out their Twin Towers line-up, the Warriors rarely went to their Line-up of Death. A great 3-out team comes into a game with a great 5-out team at a disadvantage because the math says the pick-and-roll is going to beat the post up.
The team that has had the most success against Steve Kerr’s Warriors was the Cavaliers in last year’s NBA Finals, when they nearly stole Game 1 in Oracle and got out to a 2-1 lead in the series. They weren’t playing with two of their best three players, but necessity is the mother of invention and they stumbled into a game-plan based around holding the ball, slowing the game to a crawl and letting LeBron James play 1-on-1 for 48 minutes. It’s hard to turn the ball over when one guy is dribbling the ball into the ground and only passing if he’s double teamed.
The Warriors thrive when the ball is moving and they are making basketball the beautiful game. They are so long and so active that every pass against them becomes dangerous and they are at their best when the game becomes chaotic and they can flow into open 3’s for the Splash Brothers. That’s my biggest concern with the way the Spurs match up with them - trying to out-execute them and beat them with ball movement might be playing right into their hands.
The biggest problem for the Cavs in the Finals was that LeBron couldn’t actually score efficiently in isolation situations against Andre Iguodala and the Warriors phalanx of long-armed wing defenders. While LeBron is a great scorer, that has never been the strength of his game and that’s even more the case now that he has lost a step and his outside shot has abandoned him. It was hard for them to steal games late because LeBron couldn’t create shots more efficiently in the halfcourt than Steph. That’s why Iguodala wound up winning Finals MVP.
Even if LeBron had been playing at the level he was at in Miami, it would have been hard for him to single-handedly beat a team as historically great as the Warriors. He was able to summon up that type of performance a few times, but the margin for error against Golden State is so small that you can still lose regardless of how well you play. LeBron had 40 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists in Game 5 and Steph matched that with 37 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists.
Under this line of reasoning, the best way to play Golden State would be to have two elite 1-on-1 scorers who can share the burden of creating offense against a set defense. That, in turn, brings us back to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the one team with the transcendent individual talent that could theoretically challenge the best team in the league. If Steph Curry is the best scorer in the NBA, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are No. 2 and No. 3 and they both play on the same team.
The advantage that defenders like Kawhi Leonard and Andre Iguodala have over LeBron is that they are strong enough to hold position on him and long enough to challenge his shot without giving up a driving lane to the basket. That doesn’t really work against Durant because it’s almost impossible to challenge his shot. He’s a pure shooter with a 7’4 wingspan and he can shoot off the dribble from anywhere on the court. The last time Durant played Golden State, he had 30 points on 13 shots in only 18 minutes before leaving with an ankle injury.
It’s the same story with Westbrook. The Warriors don’t have anyone who can stay in front of him because no one in the league does. He’s as big and as fast as anyone who has ever played the PG position and he’s posting numbers this season that haven’t been seen since Oscar Robertson in his prime. If Oklahoma City can turn a series against Golden State into a game of 2-on-2, they might be able to ride historic scoring numbers from their two superstars to an upset.
“Look, we're not the San Antonio Spurs. We're not going to make 30 passes in a possession. We're not that," said Durant. "Of course people want us to be that. That's great basketball, don't get me wrong, but we're not that. We've got guys that can score. we've got two guys on this team that can get a bucket. There's going to be times we gotta ISO. There's going to be times we gotta be aggressive to look for our shot or make a play.
"But basketball is simple, when you got a guy that can get into the paint, that's what San Antonio wants to do, but they've got guys, multiple guys that'll pass, pass, dribble, get to the paint. That's ultimately what you want, get the defense off balance, drive, kick, make the right play. Simple basketball, but we just don't make five or six passes before we do it sometimes. And that's not a knock against us I don't think. We've got dynamic guys that can play and do different things on the floor, I think that's to your advantage."
Of course, the problem for the Thunder is that the Warriors play 5-on-5 and it remains to be seen whether the Oklahoma City supporting cast is good enough to keep up in that type of series. Do the Thunder have players who can spread the floor for their stars on offense while still playing acceptable enough defense on the other? That might be the biggest storyline in the league at the moment and it’s why they might want to think about making a trade at the deadline.
The bottom line is that the Warriors are playing the game at about as high a level as it has ever been played. They have the best player in the league and a team built perfectly around him to maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. I’m not sure it’s possible to beat them playing team basketball. The best chance that anyone might have is to ugly up the game, muck up the action and play a Brutalist style of 1-on-1 offense for seven games. Oklahoma City has two guys who can score efficiently while taking turns playing 1-on-1 and that’s really all I want to see against Golden State at this point.