Is Golden State making the NBA Finals just a formality?

The San Antonio Spurs had plenty of cause for hope entering the Western Conference Finals. They blew the Warriors out on Opening Night in Oracle Arena in the only game during the regular season where neither team rested most of their starters. They clearly carried that confidence into Game 1 and opened up a 25-point lead in the second quarter. They held a 78-55 advantage when Kawhi Leonard left the game after re-aggravating his injured ankle multiple times during the third quarter.

While San Antonio's strong play with Leonard on the floor might indicate that they can beat the Warriors while at full health, we might not see that in this series. Kawhi's status for Game 3 is still in question:

Even if Kawhi did return for Game 3, he will clearly not be completely healthy by Saturday night. Furthermore, it is still difficult to separate just how much of Golden State's Game 1 comeback was due to Kawhi's absence as opposed to Stephen Curry heating up in the second half.

Part of me knows that the Spurs and Gregg Popovich can never be counted out of a series. However, all of the evidence from the first two games of this series point to an inevitable Warriors victory. Normal circumstances would dictate that the Spurs are a threat right until the final buzzer of their final game. However, this Warriors team represents anything but normal circumstances.

First Half Woes

There is a common theme to every close playoff game that the Warriors have played so far this season. Game 3 against the Trail Blazers (which included their largest deficit in that round), Game 3 against the Jazz (ditto) and Game 1 against the Spurs are all linked by the same thread. In all of these games, Golden State trailed at halftime but pulled out a victory by dominating the final 24 minutes. The Warriors trailed Portland 67-54 at halftime in Game 3 but scored 65 points in the last two quarters and won 119-113. They trailed Utah 50-49 after two periods of Game 3 in that series, but cruised to an 11-point win behind a strong second half. In these playoffs, the Warriors average 57.8 points per game in the first half and allow 51.8 per game, even after both of those numbers were aided by their crushing 72-44 margin in the first half of Game 2. While those numbers are still dominant, they pale in comparison to the Warriors' margins in the second half. They average 59.3 points per game after halftime and allow just 48.3. A six point average scoring margin in a half is remarkable. An 11 point margin is unheard of.

While the Kawhi Leonard injury clearly altered the course of Game 1, that injury was not the only thing that changed after the halftime break. Stephen Curry scored 11 points in the third quarter before Leonard left the court. His hot shooting, in turn, opened up the floor for his teammates. San Antonio had to scramble to keep Curry locked down any time he crossed half court, and the Warriors offense roared back to life. After only 42 points and eight assists in the first two quarters, Golden State put up 71 points along with 14 assists after the break. The 18-0 Warriors run after Kawhi exited the game points to just how important Kawhi Leonard is to the Spurs on both ends of the floor, but it also obscures the fact that the Warriors were executing better on offense in the third quarter even before Leonard went to the locker room.

There are times when it seems like the Warriors are almost disinterested during the first half. They showed in Game 1 exactly what they had shown during their weakest moments in the opening rounds--they can be taken to task early in the game if they don't lock in early. It is a bad sign for Spurs fans that the Warriors dominated the first half in Game 2. It is even more troubling that the Warriors can get away with substandard play in the first two quarters by annihilating teams after returning from the locker room.

San Antonio's Creation Story

The greatest irony of Kawhi Leonard's playoffs so far is that the Spurs do not miss his defense anywhere near as much as they miss his offense. The Spurs didn't exactly lock the Warriors down in Game 1 after Leonard went to the locker room, but their offensive woes were a much bigger factor in that loss. San Antonio scored just 33 points in the final 20 minutes of Game 1 with Kawhi out, and they put up just 16 points in a Game 2 that was basically over halfway through the second quarter.

Kawhi may be the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year, but he has made massive strides on the offensive end this season. Leonard finished ninth in the league in scoring during the regular season and was in the Top 20 in True Shooting Percentage.

However, his most impressive offensive development has been in his ability to run the pick and roll. Leonard's much-improved handle and already elite athleticism allow him to turn the corner and score with even the tiniest sliver of space:

Leonard was in the 93rd percentile of pick and roll ball handler offense this season, according to Synergy Sports. He also averaged a career high 3.5 assists per game during the regular season, which is up to 4.6 assists per game during the playoffs.

Without Leonard in the lineup, the Spurs don't have anyone who can create effectively in the pick and roll. Their other good creator in those situations, Tony Parker, was in the 78th percentile of pick and roll ball handler offense. His injury during the Rockets series left Kawhi with far more offensive responsibility than ever before, even in a career year for him on the offensive end.

Losing both Leonard and Parker decimated San Antonio's offense. Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills, the two players that were tasked with most of the ball handling duties with Kawhi out, were in the 42nd percentile in pick and roll offense. Dejounte Murray was in the 18th percentile during the regular season.

Asking LaMarcus Aldridge to bail the Spurs out in the post is nearly an impossible task if the guards around him cannot create any space off the dribble. Although Jonathon Simmons continues to be a Warriors killer (he set a career scoring high in Game 2) and deserves tremendous praise for his incredible performance throughout these playoffs, it is laughable that San Antonio's biggest offensive force had to pay for his own D-League tryout less than four years ago. The Spurs clearly miss Kawhi's defensive brilliance, but they miss his ability to create looks on the offensive end even more. 

The War of Attrition

The biggest reason why the Warriors will win this series is also the most obvious. The Spurs have shown that they cannot withstand an extended absence from Kawhi Leonard. Their only All-Star this year has been the driving force of their success on both ends of the floor, and they look lost without him.

The Warriors, on the other hand, have lost stars and not missed a beat. Kevin Durant missed most of the last two months of the season, and the Warriors won 13 straight games. Durant sat out two games against Portland, and the Warriors won them both. Steve Kerr has been on the sidelines with his back injury since Game 2 of that Portland series, and yet Golden State has yet to lose in these playoffs.

Three of the top five players in Win Shares per 48 minutes--Curry, Durant, and Draymond Green--play for the Warriors. Three of the top five players in Defensive Win Shares--Green, Curry, and Klay Thompson, play for the Warriors. The last three MVP winners--Durant and Curry twice--play for the Warriors. If you look at the All-NBA teams, four of the top 15 players in the league and three of the top ten all play for Golden State.

With a 2-0 lead and a hobbled Kawhi Leonard, an injury might be San Antonio's only chance at a series victory. However, the Warriors have the pieces to make up for pretty much any injury. Losing Curry would be devastating--but Durant can take over the scoring load, Draymond can become even more of a facilitator, and Shaun Livingston can be a capable fill-in. The Warriors have already shown that they can get by just fine without Kevin Durant. Losing Draymond Green might be more of an issue than any other injury this team could suffer due to how irreplaceable he is--but the Warriors can just slot perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup, move Durant to power forward, and cream their opponents on the offensive end.

After Cleveland decimated the Celtics in a Game 1 win that was far less of a contest than the final score might indicate, a Warriors-Cavs Finals seems almost guaranteed, with Golden State being the favorites to win the championship according to oddsmakers at Sports Betting Dime. This year represents the first time in NBA history that two teams have gone 9-0 or better to start the playoffs.

It sounds ridiculous given the disparity in the strength of their opponents, but the Warriors might still have an easier path to the Finals than the Cavaliers. Their competition in the Western Conference is far tougher, but ultimately both Golden State and Cleveland are all but assured of their third respective Finals matchup.

However, the Warriors arguably rely less on each of their individual stars than any other team in league history. The Cavaliers could weather poor performances from Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love, but they don't have much of an answer for a bad game from LeBron James. Golden State, on the other hand, won Game 3 against the Jazz comfortably on the heels of Kevin Durant's dominance--even as Steph Curry and Klay Thompson both had terrible games.

So much has to go wrong for the Warriors to not dominate a game. Even more, would have to go wrong for them to actually lose a game. That nearly happened in Game 1, but they were still able to recover from the gut punch they endured in the first half and claim a comeback victory.

The Spurs showed in Game 1 that they can beat the Warriors. However, it seems nearly impossible for the Spurs to ride a hobbled Kawhi to four wins in five games. I would not be surprised if San Antonio wins one or both of their upcoming home games. In spite of that, it seems more certain than ever that the Warriors will get their Finals rubber match with LeBron James and the Cavaliers.


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