The San Antonio Spurs are staring at an uphill battle that no team in the NBA wants: a seven-game series with the Golden State Warriors.
The Spurs’ best player is still on the bench with a mysterious quad injury, and they haven’t won a game on the road in nearly two months. As bleak as it may seem, San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich and his bunch led by LaMarcus Aldridge have a rare opportunity to knock off one of the best teams ever assembled, even if it’s just because their MVP (yeah I said it) is hurt too.
The Steph-less Warriors
The Warriors still have last year’s Finals MVP Kevin Durant and two all-star sidekicks in Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, but the team is fundamentally different without Steph Curry. This season Curry boasted a team-high net rating of +14.7, but with him off the floor, Golden State is only outscoring opponents by 2.9 points per hundred possessions.
In the 51 games he played this year, Curry contributed an average of 26.4 points on 50/40/90 efficiency. He led the team to an absurd effective field goal percentage of 61 percent, and with him out that drops seven percentage points to 54 percent (which is still fantastic).
Curry is a prolific scorer, but it’s important to remember that he’s also one of the game’s best ball handlers who averaged six assists per game. Without their seasoned point guard, the Dubs have turned the ball over at one of the highest rates in the league. He has guided them to a ridiculous assist/turnover ratio of 2.05, and that plummets to 1.78 (still great) when he’s sitting on the bench.
Since Steph went down with a Grade 2 MCL sprain on March 23, the Warriors have been merely average. They went 5-6 in that stretch, part of a 7-10 skid to close the season. They suffered three straight home losses to the Jazz, Pacers and Bucks, and also dropped games at Oracle to the Pelicans and (gasp) Kings.
The Warriors are definitely worse off without Curry, but the problem for the Spurs is that they’re still really really really good. It’s like fighting the Avengers with Tony Stark watching hung over from the sidelines in a dapper suit. At least you don’t have to deal with that guy, but there are at least three others that can seriously mess up your day.
The healthy Warriors operate on a different plane of existence than the rest of the NBA. Steph’s injury brings them back down to earth just a bit, and that’s enough for San Antonio to have a shot.
The Spurs haven’t won a game outside San Antonio since Feb 25. Interestingly, the numbers haven’t been all that terrible on the road. It just seems that when it comes time to win the game, Pop’s bunch figures out a way to do it at the AT&T Center and figures out a way to blow it anywhere else.
If the Spurs are to win this series, they will need their first road win in almost TWO MONTHS to come at Oracle Arena, and that seems rather unlikely. Still, there’s a glimmer of hope with Curry on the bench and a few key weaknesses that San Antonio can exploit. Here’s what the Spurs need to pull off the upset.
LaMarcus Aldridge needs to absolutely go off to give the Spurs any chance of victory, and he seems primed to do so. He averaged 27 points and 9 boards over the last 15 games of the regular season, and he has unquestionably stepped up as a leader in Kawhi Leonard’s absence.
The Warriors are one of many teams that don’t have a single player who can defend LaMarcus one-on-one on that left block. Draymond is too short, KD is too skinny, and Pachulia is too slow. If Golden State makes the mistake of letting Aldridge go to work in the post without sending double teams, they’re going to have a bad time.
When Aldridge isn’t pounding the rock in the paint, he’s boxing out to get an offensive board. He averaged 3.3 per game in the regular season, fifth-most in the NBA. Those rebounds most often lead directly to an easy bucket at the rim, or free throws.
LaMarcus has shown flashes of greatness in the playoffs in years past, and he will need to be all that and more consistently as the only true star on this team.
Turn it into a Rock Fight
The Warriors want to play a wide-open game with a ton of transition and quick possessions ending in three-point swishes. That sort of game would end badly for San Antonio, who would do better in a 90’s style knock-down-drag-out brawl of a basketball game.
By playing through the post and slowing the pace of the game down, it takes Golden State out of what they do best. The Spurs cannot win these games if they allow the Dubs to score easy buckets in transition and run up and down the floor. The Warriors pace has slowed considerably in the absence of Steph, and that seems to have gotten them out of their rhythm.
The more physical the game gets, the more it favors the Spurs. The Warriors play best when they’re having fun, but seem to implode when things are not going their way. Draymond and KD have racked up the second and third-most technical fouls in the league this season, and it’s almost always about a foul call or non-call that didn’t go their way.
If the Spurs bang in the post and play rough defense, they will set the tone and take the Warriors out of their comfort zone. More contact means more officiating decisions for Golden State’s mercurial all-stars to impolitely disagree with. Even if that frustration doesn’t result in techs or ejections, it will make the Dubs less effective.
Win the Turnover Battle
It is hard enough to beat the Warriors without giving them free points in transition. Every pass the Spurs throw needs to be smart, crisp, and accurate. On the other end, Dejounte Murray and Danny Green need to badger ball handlers and disrupt passing lanes.
San Antonio was one of the best teams in the league at taking care of the ball this year, and Golden State was one of the worst. Especially with Steph on the bench, the Spurs need to force the issue and get as many easy buckets off of turnovers as they possibly can.
Role Players Step Up
LaMarcus Aldridge was the only Spur to average more than 12 points per game this year. According to Spurs’ PR guru Jordan Howenstine, San Antonio is the first team to make the playoffs with only one player over 12 PPG since the Minneapolis Lakers in 1953-54, and they were led by George Mikan who was about three feet taller than everyone else on the floor.
If the Warriors double Aldridge actively, San Antonio will struggle. The Spurs still haven’t quite figured out how to capitalize when multiple defenders swarm to LaMarcus. Patty Mills, Danny Green, Bryn Forbes, and Davis Bertans need to be ready to hit big shots if they’re left open.
Dejounte Murray, Rudy Gay, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all need to be ready to immediately swing the ball around or attack the basket when LA passes out of a double. The Warriors defense is actually better without Steph on the floor, and creating off the dribble against their long, athletic defenders will be a tough task.
Even without Steph, beating the Warriors in a seven-game series is a tall order. If the Spurs can punch the Dubs in the mouth in the first game on this lovely Saturday afternoon, it will give them their best chance of winning the series. They’ll still probably need seven games and a Herculean effort by Aldridge to get it done. Otherwise, the Warriors will probably come out on top in six games and leave the Spurs waiting many more months for their next road win.
What do you think? Tweet your predictions @RealTomPetrini.