What did we learn from the latest Spurs-Warriors matchup?


For any Warriors fans feeling a little cocky about an impending return trip the Finals, there was a wake up call for you last Saturday. The Spurs are for real, and they don’t plan on being trifled with. I’m aware of all the excuses, don’t you worry. No Iguodala, Bogut, or Festus; the back end of a back to back; holding back for the playoffs. Some of that is worth considering, but a lot of it is hogwash. In the big picture, the Spurs came out and made a statement that the Warriors have to listen to. They stuffed everything the Warriors tried on offense, controlled the pace, and manufactured buckets in ways that are sustainable.

Source: SF Gate

None of that should have been a surprise to anyone paying attention. The Spurs and Warriors are undoubtedly the two best teams to ever find themselves in the same conference in the same season. It’s absolutely possible for both teams to finish with 70 wins, and the two greatest point differentials of all time. As good as the Warriors are, in so many facets of the game, the Spurs are actually better in many others, especially on defense. They comfortably lead the league in points allowed per 100 possession, over 5 points better than the Warriors. Most of you already know all that, but it’s just a reminder that in reality, every number besides team record (and even that’s close) suggests that the Warriors are not a substantially better team.  That's not a slight to how dominant the Warriors are, but rather a tribute to how impossibly unique it is to have two teams of this caliber on the same coast. Anybody who’s been a Warriors fan since before last season knows something else as well: the Spurs own the Warriors, especially at home. They always have, and it sometimes feels like they always will. So hopefully I’ve made my point. Take the Spurs seriously. With that in mind, let’s dive into the game and see what we can glean from it moving forward.

If the starting lineups for the game were any indication, it’s true that both coaches were holding at least some cards close to the vest for the playoffs. The Warriors response to Bogut’s injury, for instance, was rather telling. Generally in the case of injury, especially a late scratch, Kerr will replace the start with a deep bench reserve who matches positionally, so the starters can keep the same game plan, and the rotations can function normally. With that logic, Varejao would be the likely starter. This time though, Kerr replaced Bogut with Brand Rush, beginning the game with a small ball lineup. Without Iguodala, Kerr didn’t have the Small Ball Death Squad available to him, but this is probably the closest iteration he can throw out there to maximize the spacing on offense and switchability on defense. The Spurs, for their part, kept Duncan as a bench reserve for only the third time in his career, and had Diaw start in his stead. Duncan did not play at all in the first meeting, and received only 9 minutes in this contest, his lowest total of the season. Don’t be confused though - both teams wanted to win this game. Just moments in the first quarter, Pop had called a timeout to tongue-lash his team over a sloppy rotation, and Kerr had to be restrained by Barbosa for screaming at a ref. Leonard, Aldridge, Curry, Draymond, and Klay all played 37+ minutes in a grueling contest, well above their normal marks. This was not a throwaway game, and so there was plenty to watch.

What jumped out to me the most, as a fan, is how smart both these teams are on defense  ALL. THE. TIME. Both teams run ten-men-deep with guys who play really intelligent basketball. They play passing lanes without gambling, they understand the tendencies and limitations of each individual, and they communicate effortlessly. They are well suited to play each other as well. The Spurs have the plethora of defenders who can hold their own against Steph, and the Warriors have the quickness and cohesiveness to keep up with the Spurs expert passing. It’s part of why we saw both teams reach for unusual offensive outlets as the game went on. They are trying to find things they can rely on.

The Spurs had to have walked away from the game feeling like they won the game with their defense on the Steph-Draymond pick-and-roll. It’s the core of the Warriors offense that everything else revolves around, and no one has been able to stop it yet. The Spurs did it better than anyone has in a long while though. The last time the Warriors scored less than 80? November 8th, 2013, in a game without Curry. What lucky team pulled it off way back when? You guessed it - the Spurs. So where did the defensive success come from? Well, from all over the place. Watching the first quarter, I was reminded of a recent Lowe Post podcast with former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau as the guest.

Zach asked him, “what’s the answer to the Steph Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll?” Tom responded, “I don’t think you can give them a steady diet of anything. I think you have to read the personnel that’s on the floor and give them different looks....and I think what we tried to do when I was in Chicago was just try to make him work as much as possible. You know he’s going to have a big night, but you have to make it on volume shots, and give him different looks, don’t get him locked into one thing. He’s too good. He’s seen every defense there is…

Now I don’t know if Popovich heard that podcast or just had the same idea, but Spurs threw the kitchen sink at Steph. In just the first quarter, four different defenders took Steph to start a possession, and four different defenders took Draymond. Curry saw someone new flying at him after every screen. The pick and roll defense shifted just a little bit every time down the floor as well. Sometimes the big man defender would show hard before darting back to his man, other times soft, and other times he would switch onto Steph entirely. The strategy, inasmuch as there was no single strategy, worked as well as the Spurs could have hoped. Neither Draymond nor Steph ever found a consistent rhythm. Steph in particular was tentative as a decision maker in ways that he rarely is. The Warriors, for their part, probably got away from the PnR a little too often as the game went on. Steph and Klay both fired up shots early in the possession that they'd probably like back. They're the two best shooters in the league, and they have permission to shoot those, but there's a fine line between daring and reckless. Iguodala would have been a helpful figure to calm things down and initiate some half court sets. 

To be perfectly clear, the Spurs are not the first team to try this approach, but they are certainly the BEST team. It is not simple to shift your defenders and your approach every time down the floor. It requires pristine communication, sky high IQ’s, and a roster of supremely talented individual defenders. There are 28 teams in the league that couldn’t pull that off. The Warriors will handle that defense better on most other nights, for sure. When Curry is struggling to run the pick and roll, he often switches to an off ball roll for a different look. Without Iguodala to handle the ball, or Bogut to set screens, that option was not as effective as usual. Curry was left as the main ball handler for heavy minutes, on the second end of a back to back, and it showed. The Warriors were all clearly tired, and even the open shots they did find did not have legs under them. That will self-correct with health and rest. The Spurs found something though, and they know it.

On the other side of the court, the Spurs did not find rousing success necessarily, but they did find some tools here and there that might fit into a successful strategy down the road. As I mentioned, the Warriors started small, and the Spurs took the opportunity to test their size advantage.

They attacked the post quickly and consistently throughout the game, and fared reasonably well in certain matchups. Aldridge played well last year against Draymond, and found some of that groove again after struggling mightily in the first matchup this season. That’s an important option for the Spurs to have in the playoffs when defenses tighten and half court offense reigns. Kawhi has become an offensive force, but with the slew of elite defenders the Warriors can throw at him, it will be important to have an alternative when the shot clock is winding down. Kawhi found his own success in the post against Klay, but hopefully the Warriors avoid that matchup from occuring to often, because leonard struggled against any bigger defenders. At one beautiful point, Danny Green attempted to post up Steph on the right block, but the Spurs couldn’t make the entry pass. I would have paid good money to actually watch what could have been the most unlikely low block matchup of all time.

The most problematic post ups though, came from none other than Boris Diaw. Boris had a +20 plus/minus for the game, and the eye test would agree with that number. He gave the Warriors fits regularly, and in a concerning manner. The ambling frenchman might bring to the table the skillset that can wreak havoc on this Warriors team. Against small lineups, he took Harrison Barnes into the post with the ease and urgency of a Sunday morning stroll, and dominated him. Then he would step out the three point, and drop some buckets from there. After that he probably needed an espresso break, but then he was back on the defensive end staying just quick footed enough to stay in front of his smaller man, eating up precious seconds of the shot clock. All by himself, he nullified many of the greatest advantages of the small ball lineup the Warriors rely on so much, and that may be the most important thing to take away from the game. If the Warriors must play two bigs with Diaw on the floor, their great trump card is essentially removed from the deck.

Source: Boris Diaw's Instagram

The Spurs are as well adapted as anyone to take advantage of size mismatches, and they are right to explore them. They can surround the post with excellent spacing, and they have skilled bigs with experience down there. The Warriors, for their part, got taken advantage without Bogut and Festus, and will be glad to have them back. They also defended the post in some ways that we don’t often see.from them. Generally, we see the Warriors guards flit in and out of the post to help, before darting back to their man on the perimeter. The idea is to keep the passing lanes clogged without overcommitting and leaving your man wide open. On Saturday, there were more hard doubles, and some other times where no help came at all. I’m not sure if that was poor execution or just the gameplan, but I’d expect it to adjust in the future.

In the end, this was matchup #2 of 4. There’s plenty of sizing up left to be done, but both teams can now go back to the drawing board with some new intel. I would say that the Warriors should be favored in a seven game series, and Vegas agrees. They still have the best player in the series, and the best five man lineup. That will matter in the playoffs when the benches see fewer minutes. Most importantly of all, the Warriors had open shots that just didn't fall and that's a trend that figures to reverse. The best part though, is that we've got two more matchups to come before this season comes to a close. Watching both of these teams tapdance between an earnest effort to win/secure home court advantage and a calculated effort to not reveal too much is great theater. Neither team has played a game fully healthy and prepared yet, and they probably won’t until the playoffs. this is not a doomsday column, but a reality-check column. Another championship is not in the bag, and we shouldn't want it to be. It's far more fun with a little suspense. All we can hope for is that both teams arrive there, in the conference finals, intact and ready for war. Because that’s exactly what it’s going to be.

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