AT&T CENTER — One hour and a half before Game 2 tipped off, Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson sat down before the media and confidently laid all his cards on the table.
“I’ve got the greatest shooting backcourt that’s ever played the game,” Jackson said with the confidence of a gambler ready to take the house for all its money. “Call my bluff.”
Mark Jackson is representing pocket aces in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and the San Antonio Spurs have been around long enough to know the Warriors aren’t bluffing. They know a great hand all to well when they see one, having slow played three kings over the past 10 years.
The playoffs, given its best-of-seven format, the quality of the teams remaining, and importance of subtle adjustments between games, are often compared to a chess match between players and coaches. But a chess match assumes that both sides enter a game with equal pieces, leaving the superior tactical mind to carry the day.
A playoff series is more like a game of poker in that sometimes the outcome simply comes down to the cards you’re dealt and how you play them. The Spurs see the flop, they know and try to play the percentages to their favor, but even the best played hands are subject to chance.
After two games the Spurs have a better idea of the hand Jackson is holding than their own. Those pocket aces are real, the Spurs are in trouble, and as new to the game as Jackson and the Golden State Warriors might be, they know enough to know that now is the time to lean on the Spurs.
No strangers to poker faces, having coached two of the best in the stone-faced Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, Gregg Popovich dutifully played the role of someone about to suffer a bad beat while still keeping his cards close to the vest.
“I thought it was polite of [Curry and Thompson] to at least take turns and not both be on fire on the same night,” Popovich said. “Maybe the next iteration is that neither of them will be hot in Game 3, that’s what I’m hoping.”
Popovich is an intelligent enough gambler to know that depending on the right cards to show is a quick way to lose. Right now those pocket aces are a better hand, and Curry and Thompson by far the best two players in this series.
The second round has been hell for Tony Parker, who has been torched by the Golden State Warriors at every turn without being an opportunity to directly respond to his counterpart. While Parker is chasing Curry off screens, or battling the 6-7 Thompson or 6-8 Harrison Barnes in the post, Mark Jackson is protecting and preserving his star point guard on the defensive end.
“I would not ask [Curry] to play 48 minutes running the point and defending Parker,” Jackson said when asked about Curry’s extensive Game 1 minutes. “The difference in this series, obviously, is their system allows us play a guy like Steph where he’s guarding a spot-up shooter, where he can take possessions off and recover.”
This is hardly a new strategy, and teams have been employing it with some success against the Spurs for years, putting Steve Nash on a George Hill or Jason Terry on a Roger Mason, jr.
Danny Green, the Spurs current resident three-and-D specialist, has made several gains in terms of working off the ball so as not to allow his opponent to relax too much. But he doesn’t pose any type of consistent threat off the bounce, meaning that defending him still remains more about attention to detail than expended effort.
Right now the Warriors are pressing their advantage of their hand, but Popovich does have one trump card up his sleeve he typically plays in times like these and now might be the proper time to play it and put Mark Jackson to a decision.
The Warriors are dictating matchups with Curry and Thompson, which is something the Spurs have done in the past with Parker and Manu Ginobili. And while Ginobili hasn’t had a good series by any means, inserting him in the starting lineup would at least change the variables for the Warriors.
Ginobili isn’t quite the defender Green is today, in fact, he’s slipped noticeably on that end whenever he tries to matchup with Thompson. But his presence on the floor gives the Spurs a constant threat and forces Jackson to decide where to place Curry amongst Parker, Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard.
At times during Game 2 that meant putting Curry on Leonard, and the Spurs immediately attacked the matchup in the post. The looks they generated from the mismatch were quality shots, even if they failed to convert on some.
The reasons Popovich keeps Ginobili on the bench are to preserve his legs by restricting his minutes, and balancing out the lineups to win the stretches played by second units.
But as the Western Conference Finals proved last year, sometimes the Spurs don’t have the luxury of bringing a Ginobili off the bench or keeping his minutes low. The Warriors are a young team, and their ability to get 40-plus minutes a night from their top players keeps constant pressure on the Spurs. And as great as the Spurs system is, it isn’t enough to compensate in the face of elite shooting.
Yes, Curry and Thompson are the greatest shooting backcourt in the history of basketball, but the Spurs once possessed the games most dynamic. It’s time to call Jackson’s bluff and let the card fall where they may.