The Golden State Warriors appeared to be in for a tough series after trailing the Spurs by 23 points in the third quarter of Game 1. Then, Kawhi Leonard re-injured his ankle and the Spurs were not the same without him.
Although last year's Western Conference Finals ended up going to seven games, many NBA fans were disappointed by the matchup. The Thunder proved to be a worthy opponent, but fans were left wondering if Golden State would have had a different fate had they faced the second-seeded Spurs on the heels of their 67-win season.
The dream of the Warriors-Spurs series did come to fruition this season. However, fans were left even more disappointed after a Kawhi Leonard injury ruined San Antonio's chances of mounting a challenge against the Warriors. While Golden State probably would have won the series regardless of Leonard's health--after all, their deficit at halftime was due more to poor shooting and rust than anything else--this series would have been far more interesting with Leonard in the mix. As things stand, the Warriors will carry a 12-0 playoff record into their third consecutive NBA Finals. The headlining points from this game will have a lot to say about both Golden State's chances in the Finals and the future of their Western Conference Finals opponent.
1. Farewell (?) to Manu Ginobili
At the start of the playoffs, it seemed as if Manu Ginobili was at the end of his storied career. Ginobili missed his first 15 shots in the playoffs, and looked to be one step slower than he would need to be to continue to be effective.
Then, somehow, the old Manu magic returned. After he hit his first shot, he proceeded to shoot 48.8 percent for the rest of the playoffs. He closed out the series against the Houston Rockets with a game-sealing block on James Harden in Game Five.
Manu carried the Spurs' offense in the Conference Finals with Kawhi out. He averaged 13.8 points per game on 58.8 percent shooting against the Warriors, and threw in nearly three assists and two steals per game. Ginobili started Game 4 in what might have been a gesture to his years of sacrificing by coming off the bench. He responded with 15 points, seven assists, and three steals--including the game's first basket. Manu received a much-deserved standing ovation as he left the court.
There were ways in which this game felt like a send-off for Manu and the last goodbye for the Big Three era of Spurs basketball. After all, Tim Duncan retired last year and Tony Parker's future remains in question after his injury in the Rockets series.
That being said, it remains entirely possible that Manu returns for another year. He personally said that he would wait a few weeks to make that decision. His play from the beginning of the playoffs would indicate a man on the verge of calling it quits. His play after that indicates that he still has quite a few good games left in him. Whatever he decides, the league will miss him dearly whenever he hangs up his shoes.
2. Injury Concerns
The Warriors have not had many reasons for concern thus far in the postseason. While they were lucky to escape from Game 1 of this series without a loss, they remain undefeated in the playoffs. They will also have a week to rest before the Finals and their presumptive rematch with the Cavaliers.
That week of rest will be a necessary part of their chances at a championship. Golden State will face their toughest opponent yet in the Finals, barring a stunning upset by the Celtics or an injury to LeBron James. They might not need to have their squad at full strength to win the title, but any hole in their rotation will create an opening for Cleveland.
Andre Iguodala returned to the lineup in Game 4 and played decently well in 22 minutes. Zaza Pachulia, however, missed another game with his injured heel. The Warriors can work around a Pachulia injury by slotting Draymond Green in at center more often and giving JaVale McGee and David West more minutes. While losing Zaza for the Finals would not be devastating, it does place more pressure on Golden State's center rotation, which is already their weakest position.
Any lingering effects of the injury to Andre Iguodala would be far more concerning. Iguodala won the 2015 Finals MVP due to his stellar play on both ends against LeBron James. Iguodala will not be stuck on LeBron anywhere near as often in this series due to Kevin Durant.
However, defending LeBron for 48 minutes is not a one-man job, or even a two-man job. The Warriors will win the title this year unless LeBron has a historically incredible championship round (see: the 2015 and 2016 Finals). Any damage to Golden State's coverage crew on LeBron could easily swing this year's title
3. The KD/Curry synergy
While both Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry have had better individual games, Game 4 against the Spurs was their best performance as a duo. Curry scored 36 points in the closeout game. Durant was even more ridiculous, as he put up 29 points on just 13 shots to go along with 12 rebounds.
The biggest concern for Golden State this season has been how Durant and Curry can play together. The Warriors' 13 game win streak without Durant was a throwback to last year's Warriors, and the questions surrounding Durant's fit in a pass-happy offense remained a concern. Much of the debate that circled around LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in their first year in Miami came to roost in Oakland--could these two ball-dominant stars play effectively together, or would they simply trade possessions?
This Game 4 showed that Durant and Curry are approaching the same degree of synergy that LeBron and Wade had from 2012 onwards. After a full season without Curry-Durant pick and rolls, the Warriors have (for now) stopped trying to make Durant a screener and have instead opted to have Curry set the screens with Durant holding the ball. Steph has a lot of experience screening for Klay Thompson. A Durant-Curry pick and roll is still unguardable, despite the screener not being the player many would have expected.
There are still quite a few kinks to work out in Golden State's offense. Similarly to Miami, we will probably not see the Warriors at their absolute peak until next year. The team can use the summer to figure out what Durant and Curry respectively need to work on to play better with each other.
For now, however, the duo was still deadly in Game 4. Their comfort level in playing alongside each other is already scary--even without another off-season of development. Nobody should ever bet against LeBron James after last season, but it will be nearly impossible to stop the Warriors from marching to the title if Curry and Durant can play together as well as they did in closing out the Spurs.