AT&T CENTER—The NBA Playoffs are a stage unlike any other in sports. In the shortened confines of a best-of-seven series, every moment of every game is magnified, yet measured.
A hot hand, shooting slump, or quirky matchup—things that can be written off as statistical outliers over the course of an 82-game season—can prove devastating in a race to just four victories. But as each playoff series extends into their fifth, sixth, or seventh games, and one series bleeds into another, these anomalies have a way of balancing out over time, allowing for the best combination of talent and process to advance.
The key for a team like the Golden State Warriors to pull an upset is to strike early, shortening a series before the law of averages can work its magic (or should that be science).
If the Warriors go on to lose this series it will be because of their loss in Game 1 and failure to capitalize on the moment when small sample sizes and statistical anomalies skewed the advantages in their favor.
Through the first two games at the AT&T Center, the Warriors knocked the San Antonio Spurs off-kilter with unorthodox skill sets and an approach that worked against the Spurs basic defensive principles. After all, no other point guard in the NBA is capable of stepping behind a screen beyond the three-point and launching jump shots in such volumes with such high accuracy like Stephen Curry can. And few teams surround their point guard with two long, athletic, and potent perimeter threats.
The Spurs have made the necessary adjustments between Games 2 and 3, however, and though the high variance Warriors remain a dangerous threat, the Spurs system and processes have been working the percentages in their favor since the second half of Game 2.
With the exception of Stephen Curry’s 22-point scoring binge in the third quarter of Game 1, and Klay Thompson’s 29-point first half in Game 2, the Spurs defense has largely kept the Warriors offense in check. There is a reason those performances were immediately viewed as historic, they’re rare.
Since moving Kawhi Leonard onto Thompson exclusively in the second half of Game 2, Thompson has shot a combined 16-49, failing to take a single three-pointer in Game 5. That’s not a shooting slump, that’s Leonard’s defense settling in. Similarly, having Danny Green on Curry whenever possible has kept his output manageable even before an ankle injury set in.
Only another statistical anomaly, a historically woeful shooting night in Game 4, kept Game 5 from being a closeout game. In two games at Oakland the Warriors shot under 40 percent, and though that margin improved in Game 5, it was still more than manageable.
“Each game we’ve grown more confident in our defense and each other. We felt them out in Games 1 and 2 and made the proper adjustments,” Danny Green said. “We made the proper adjustments, our bigs have done a great job of helping us with the guards—they’re a more perimeter oriented team. With the Lakers, obviously it was more pounding it into the post, so this is a totally different team from the first series and it took us a game or two to adjust.”
The Spurs have strengthened their defense around Curry and Thompson, opting to let rookie Harrison Barnes beat them by placing Tony Parker on him. And though the rookie has been more than game, scoring a team-high 25 points on 10-18 shooting in Game 5, his prominence in the offense also moves Curry and Thompson to the background on the possessions the Warriors look to exploit the mismatch.
“The series for us is all about the defense,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “They did a good job but there are other people who did good work out there. We’ve got a lot of mismatches and they go to those mismatches, so we’ve got to play intelligently in those situations and I thought we did that tonight.”
Again, with only two potential games left in this series any random outlier, a dry spell for the Spurs, another third quarter scoring binge from Curry, can turn things right back around. But over the course of time the Spurs from Games 3-5 have been who they were all season: a dominant defensive team that works its offensive system for quality looks from a number of different sources.
If that offense sputtered in Game 4, it had more to do with missing shots than generating quality attempts. With 11 missed free throws and 20 missed three-pointers, all one can do is write the performance off as a bad shooting night and trust that those same available shots will drop the next game.
In the first quarter the Spurs were connecting on all of their shots and the offense once again looked to reach the elite levels it did a season ago. The team coordinated the timing of its screen, passes, and cuts in perfect harmony, moving ball and bodies around until it found the best possible shot rather than the first open one. It was a reflection of the team’s motto all year round, seeking that good-to-great shot attempt.
The Spurs shot a blistering 72.2 percent in the first quarter, scoring 37 points. And even when those percentages regressed to a pitiful 33.3 percent in the second quarter, allowing the Warriors back in the game, the Spurs stayed true to their process, the percentages finally matching those processes over time.
They found open corner three-pointers and cutters at the rim. They manipulated the defense with screens and ball reversals. And as Tony Parker’s injured calf loosened up, he went on a second half scoring tear that reminded everyone of the dominant player he was all season long. The Spurs assisted on 30 of their 40 made field goals, a ratio not uncommon for these Spurs when things are going well.
“That’s how it’s supposed to be,” Manu Ginobili said. “It is great to see the team perform like this and shoot better. We moved the ball very well, we had 30 assists for 40 field goals and that’s what we needed. That’s who we are and it’s great to see.”
This series remains close, and the Warriors dangerous. However, when projecting the outcome of this series it helps to keep in mind Occam’s Razor, which states the simplest answer is often correct. Before the series most prognosticators believed the Spurs to be the superior team. And though some blistering performances and high variances in small sample sizes have complicated that assertion, it still likely remains true.
The odds remain heavily in the Spurs favor, but only one game is needed to throw everything off kilter once more. The NBA Playoffs are a stage unlike any other in sports, and though the Spurs should be favored, come Thursday night anything is possible.