AT&T CENTER–After their enjoyable second round playoff series, any game between the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors figures to be teeming with storylines and intrigue. Much of that goes out the door with the absence of Stephen Curry, who did not play, and what intrigue remains dissolves behind the haze of what has been an odd, but technically successful start for the Spurs.
The Spurs won, as they have four other times before this season, but they didn't play particularly well. And they haven't for much of the season, despite the 5-1 record. Finding any narrative in that, this early in this season, would be flawed. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich hasn't been concerned with the early season sample size, while his team is aware of the need to improve their overall play.
"It was a pretty poor game. We both missed tons of shots," Manu Ginobili said. "The truth is that if you had told me we would have finished 76-74, I would have said no way. We are both teams that try to play fast and take shots sort of quick. It was just a game of mistakes, lots of mistakes."
The Spurs had just 12 turnovers, and held the Warriors to 40 percent shooting while creating 19 turnovers, so most of the mistakes Ginobili is referring to stems from the overall process from their offense, more so than any string of specific examples. Simply put, the fluidity of the Spurs attack has been largely absent so far, with the exception of Tony Parker's individual brilliance and a few fits and spurts that spark but have yet to fully ignite.
Parker had 18 points on 7-14 shooting to go with five rebounds and four assists, dispelling any notion of length bothering him by torching the combination of Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut early in the proceedings. The Warriors like to have Bogut hang back while Thompson chases over the top of the screen, trusting that their combined length can contest; a tactic Parker exploited by bursting around Duncan's screen, and giving a little hestitation in that midrange pocket the Warriors allow–slowing just enough to freeze Bogut and provide a path to the rim.
Given some room to build momentum, Parker was all spin moves and up-and-unders, showing the expert footwork and touch that will allow him to age much better than people thought possible, given his reliance on speed and quickness. It's when teams start trapping and blitzing the Spurs pick and roll action that the returns have been iffy.
Parker is still creating the initial breakdown of the defense, forcing teams to get into their defensive rotations, so there are other points in the Spurs offense that are misfiring. Late in the fourth quarter, as the Spurs used ball reversals to get Duncan and Parker into a quick-hitting pick and roll with the defense moving, the Warriors simply abandoned Duncan and strung out Parker's dribble.
The simple solution is to return the ball to Duncan quickly and force the Warriors into their second and third rotations, but Duncan was just 3-for-11 and struggled hitting from the perimeter. Without that stress point for defenses to rotate out to, the ball tended to stick, allowing the defense to reset.
And while the team largely returns intact, the combinations of lineups are just different enough to create some problems, such as a moment in the fourth quarter when Duncan misread a zig when new addition Marco Belinelli decided to zag–a hiccup that's occurred on multiple occasions in the early going. Working Aron Baynes and Jeff Ayres into the mix while Bonner is out and the team tries to limit minutes doesn't help either.
Baynes is starting to pick up some of the Spurs defensive rotations, and seemed to be in the right place for long stretches of his run, and his scuffle with Jermaine O'Neal was one of the more entertaining aspect of the game. But when asked about his contributions, Popovich answered "not much," and in truth it's not. Neither he nor Ayres seem to create openings for themselves in the pick and roll, which in turn fails to collapse the defense, which leads to offensive stagnation.
"[We] did a lot of one-on-one on the post and one-on-one on the perimeter," Popovich said. "We certainly couldn't put it in the basket, so the defense was really important for us tonight."
Curry might have been out, but Toney Douglas provided enough of a generic brand imitation of him (20 points, 5-for-9 from the three-point line) to put pressure on a Spurs defense that never broke. The Spurs success with the Warriors starts with their ability to eliminate Klay Thompson (11 points, 5-for-16 shooting), who has shot just 25-for-77 since halftime of Game 2 in last year's playoff matchup, when Popovich began assigning Kawhi Leonard to him full-time.
In the last two minutes the teams shots a combined 0-for-8 from the field, the Spurs holding on behind a string of quality stops and offensive rebounds–taking advantage of the attention Parker drew to attack the glass.
"We're two teams that lay a solid foundation of solid defensive principles," Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. "It was a grind out there. It was tough to score on both sides."
These are two teams that are laying a solid foundation to an entertaining rivalry, just don't look for this game to contribute to it in any meaningful way.