The Golden State Warriors did not have to wait a full week to start the Western Conference Finals after their sweep of the Utah Jazz as the San Antonio Spurs bested the Houston Rockets in six games.
The Golden State Warriors still have not lost a game in the 2017 playoffs, after sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers and the Utah Jazz. They blew past both of their first two opponents despite Steve Kerr's extended absence.
The San Antonio Spurs had a decidedly less clear path to the Western Conference Finals. They closed out the Memphis Grizzlies in six games in the first round, and also finished off the Rockets in six games. However, Kawhi Leonard missed Game 6 with an ankle injury, and he may not be fully healthy by Sunday afternoon's Game 1.
This matchup will be the toughest one that the Warriors have had to face thus far. The Spurs were the only team with a better regular season Defensive Rating than Golden State, and they will look to slow the game down to a grind. Although the Warriors will be prepared for that slower pace after their series with Utah, they will face a significantly tougher and more cohesive defense against San Antonio.
Guards: Splash Brothers versus...?
San Antonio lost Tony Parker to injury in their series against the Rockets. While Dejounte Murray played fantastic basketball on both ends in Game 6, he struggled in Games 4 and 5 to adjust to his massive increase in minutes. Patty Mills was a little steadier, but neither one of them can hold a candle to Stephen Curry.
The shooting guard battle is somewhat more interesting, but will still be a weak point for the Spurs. Danny Green can shut down Klay Thompson as well as anyone on the wing, but he will also have to fight to get open against Thompson on the other end. While both are elite shooters that can get hot in a hurry, Green can only get as hot as molten lava. Klay Thompson, on the other hand, can heat up to supernova levels:
Klay Thompson will never have this much room to operate against the Spurs. However, the threat of this happening is always there. Even if Tony Parker had stayed healthy and continued to play as well as the throwback Tony Parker we saw in the first two rounds of the playoffs, San Antonio's repaired air conditioning will not be enough to cool Klay Thompson's flamethrowing from deep.
Advantage: Golden State.
Forwards: All-Star Battle
This series will turn on the battle between two elite small forwards. Gordon Hayward showed his mettle (and earned his upcoming maximum contract) by managing to mostly keep up with Durant during Golden State's battle with Utah. However, he will face a far tougher opponent in Kawhi Leonard. Leonard has arguably been the best player in these playoffs so far. He leads the league in Value Over Replacement Player, Win Shares per 48 Minutes, overall Win Shares, Offensive Win Shares, and Player Efficiency Rating; he is also second in Defensive Win Shares (all stats per Basketball-Reference). The fact that any player is ahead of LeBron in these categories shows just how incredible Kawhi has been in these playoffs. However, his Game 5 ankle injury led to him missing Game 6, and Kawhi at anything less than full health spells trouble for the Spurs.
The power forward battle is a different story. Kawhi might be first in Win Shares per 48 minutes, but Draymond Green is tied with LeBron James for second place. Draymond also has the best Defensive Rating in the playoffs by a wide margin and also leads the playoffs in Defensive Win Shares (both stats per Basketball-Reference). LaMarcus Aldridge, on the other hand, has been criticized throughout the playoffs for not playing anywhere near as well as his max contract might indicate. While Aldridge was huge for the Spurs in Game 6, the rest of his playoffs have been very underwhelming.
Advantage: Golden State.
Centers: Battle for the Glass
The Warriors willingly sacrificed their best rebounder and rim protector in Andrew Bogut to free up space for Kevin Durant. While that trade-off is one that any team would take 100 times out of 100, it does grant the Spurs an inherent advantage inside.
Gregg Popovich played mix-and-match with his centers against the Rockets, eventually opting for Pau Gasol over David Lee. The choice paid instant dividends, as Pau's interior passing and size were enough to offset his limited lateral mobility against even the run-and-gun pace of the Rockets. Gasol will continue to pound the offensive glass against the Warriors; while he will not be anywhere near as tough to score over or box out as Rudy Gobert was in the last round, he is essentially a better version of Zaza Pachulia in pretty much every facet of the game. JaVale McGee might be in line for another big series after a quiet series against Utah's interior duo of Gobert and Derrick Favors. David West might also spend a lot of time at center against his former team. That being said, the Spurs have a decided advantage at the center spot overall.
Advantage: San Antonio.
Bench: Depth vs. Depth
This series pits arguably the two best benches in the league against each other. Golden State has depth at every position, and another long rest period will help Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala return to full strength. Patrick McCaw was excised from the rotation against the Jazz, but he had a solid series in the opening round and might be able to bug the Spurs' perimeter depth. Matt Barnes is nearly a mortal lock to say or do something to irritate the nearly implacable Spurs.
However, the Spurs showed in Game 6 against Houston that their bench is still the best in the league. Patty Mills will be a pest if he stays in his bench role, and Dejounte Murray will be a defensive menace to Golden State's shooters regardless of his role. Jonathon Simmons had a great series against the Rockets, and he showed on Opening Night that he will be a problem for the Warriors.
Manu Ginobili started the playoff 0-15. People pronounced the impending end of his career for what felt like the 10th straight season. Then, he did this in the last round:
And this too:
Manu might be 39 years old, and he might have had a slow start to the playoffs. Then again, he also turned it up at least four or five levels after Tony Parker went down. The Big Three era of the Spurs might be approaching its end, but Manu is forever.
Advantage: San Antonio.
Coaching: Questions vs. Answers
The Golden State Warriors continue to play incredible basketball in the absence of Steve Kerr. Draymond Green has been fully unleashed both on the court and off the court whenever anyone puts a microphone anywhere near him. Mike Brown has proven to be a capable fill-in for Kerr thus far, but pretty much anyone can run Kerr's system with these players and be successful.
However, the chess match of substitutions will be more important than ever in this series. Golden State faced off against two talented coaches in the opening rounds in Terry Stotts and Quin Snyder. That being said, neither of them is Pop. No-one besides Pop is Pop. The Spurs would have had the coaching advantage in this series regardless of Kerr's health, and that advantage becomes even more pronounced in this matchup.
Advantage: San Antonio.
Key Matchup: Fire vs. Ice
The Warriors had to battle a defensive stalwart of a team that moved at a molasses-like pace in their last round against the Utah Jazz. San Antonio is slightly faster (27th in pace versus 30th for the Jazz), but their desired style of play is quite similar to Utah's. The Spurs will be looking to limit Golden State's ability to run out in transition. They will take advantage of their top-ranked defense (as the only team in basketball with a better Defensive Rating than the Warriors in the regular season) and look to freeze the Warriors' offensive firepower with their bevy of strong perimeter defenders.
However, Golden State is just as effective in the half-court as they are in transition. They ran in transition more than any other team in basketball, but also averaged the second-most points per possession in their half-court sets per Synergy Sports. Kevin Durant will look to test Kawhi's ankle early in the series by relentlessly attacking on offense. If Leonard blankets Durant to the same degree that he shut down James Harden after Game 1 against Houston, the Warriors (unlike the Rockets) can simply run their offense four-on-four. When that happens, Golden State still has three All-NBA players and San Antonio has...LaMarcus Aldridge.
This series will (hopefully) be a lot closer than Golden State's first two playoff series. However, the Warriors' defense is still top-notch. Their flamethrowing backcourt will have a massive advantage against San Antonio's hobbled one, and the Spurs' size inside and excellent defense cannot hold the Warriors back for four games out of seven.
Prediction: Golden State beats San Antonio 4-2 to advance to the NBA Finals.