I wrote after the Warriors victory over the Spurs in Oracle that the team they beat wasn’t the real Spurs. And of course, I heard it from some of the diehard Warriors fans afterwards. Maybe now they know what I meant. A rested and healthy Spurs team, at home, is far different from the ghost that wafted through Oracle at the end of a February road trip.
Are the Spurs now rested and healthy? Well, Splitter was out for this game with a calf injury. But the guys I would be worried about if I were a Spurs fan are Ginobili and Parker. Ginobili suffered a sprained ankle in March; he doesn’t look all the way back to me — not even back to his previous level of advanced decrepitude. Parker has had hamstring issues this season that completely robbed him of his game for a time, including the last time these two teams met. And to my eye, he’s not even close to his championship form. Remember the Iggy of last season? That’s what Parker looks like to me. Three-quarter speed.
But Duncan is ageless, and Kawhi Leonard is finally back from his own extended injury absence and period of rust, and in this game at least, that was all the Spurs needed.
So now the big question: Was this the real Warriors team that the Spurs just mopped the floor with?
Probably not. This time it was the Warriors who weren’t all there mentally, on a road back to back in April with absolutely nothing to play for. As Steve Kerr put it in the post-game, “They wanted this game more, and it showed.”
Nonetheless, I think this was a great game to learn things about the eventual matchup between these two teams. (These two teams will meet in the playoffs, won’t they? I think it’s virtually assured, no matter where the Spurs are seeded.) Both teams had close to their whole rosters available, so we got to see how the matchups work, how the coaches see the matchups, what kind of adjustments might be made, and what kind of adjustments almost certainly won’t be made.
Here are a few of the main themes that I think will be featured when these teams next meet, in the order they occurred to me during the game:
Kawhi Leonard vs. Harrison Barnes: I have been known to… ah… casually mention The Black Falcon’s abject mediocrity on defense from time to time. It was a theme in this game, and it will be a major theme in the playoffs. To Kawhi, Barnes is nothing more than a tasty little pigeon.
Dare Kerr stick with this matchup in the playoffs? Highly doubtful, he didn’t even stick with it in this game. And quite obviously, Kerr made a big mistake with the starting matchups. He could have opened up with Dray on Leonard, and hid Barnes on Matt Bonner (a matchup we saw work in the Warriors favor in Barnes’ rookie season).
But will Pop open the series with Duncan at center and Matt Bonner at power forward? Also doubtful, if Splitter is healthy. But maybe he’ll be forced to, if Dray is hitting his threes? Ah, the intrigue.
Barnes and Green vs. Themselves: Barnes and Green were a combined 4 for 18 and 0 of 6 from three. Worse than that, if you take away Kerr’s garbage time generosity to Barnes. Performances like this will guarantee losses in the playoffs to the Spurs.
I am of the opinion that this duo will need to average 30 points a game against the Spurs for the Warriors to win. And will have ample opportunity to do so, because as in this game, they will be completely unguarded. Pop’s chief tactic will be to take Curry and Klay out of the game with Leonard and Green. Make the Warriors beat his team with Bogut, Green and Barnes.
Bogut worked in this game, Green and Barnes didn’t.
No layups: This applied to the first quarter only, when the outcome of the game was still in doubt. Draymond was hacked twice going to the basket, and sent to the line, where both times he made only 1 of 2.
I think this will be a theme in the playoffs. The Spurs are uber-deep on the front line, and can afford to foul. And the Warriors have a lot of shaky free throw shooters in Bogut, Green, Iggy and Barnes. Their ticket to the line is going to get punched.
Parker – Duncan Pick and Pop, Pick and Roll: The Warriors have literally no defense for this if Parker is healthy. Take a look at the two-play sequence beginning around 8:30 1st Q, I believe. The immobile Bogut didn’t come out of the lane to defend this on the first play. Boom, a patented Parker midrange jumper (Or was it Duncan? Same thing, really). The second time around, Bogut did try to get closer to the play. Boom, Parker went right around him for a layup.
Bob Fitzgerald’s Special Moment: There was a time I was going to make this a regular feature of my blog, analyzing that special moment of the game when Fitz witlessly parrots the talking points handed to him by Warriors PR, but I grew weary of repeating myself. But now, with Curry locked in a highly publicized MVP battle with James Harden, Fitz has latched onto a brand new management chamber pot to dump on the unsuspecting heads of his listeners.
Stephen Curry is holding opposing point guards to 37% shooting!!!!!!!!
I’ll bet you didn’t know that. And I’ll bet you didn’t know that it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Curry is backed by Bogut and Green and the league’s number one defense, which smothers most opposing point guards’ layups, and that most of the time when those point guards force a switch, it’s only to come up against an athletic 6-7″ wing who takes away their jumper, and that the league’s number one offense forces them to walk the ball up after taking the ball out of the net, limiting their fast break opportunities.
That 37% has nothing to do with that. No, it’s all Stephen Curry, all-pro defender. Right?
Look, I’ve been a defender of Curry’s defense since he was a rookie, and it was a wildly unpopular stance. But this talking point is ridiculous. Not just in itself, but also in its obvious target, James Harden. You know, that guy who never plays defense?
Yes, that guy. That was last year, when playing defense was completely futile for Harden. This season, with Trevor Ariza on the other wing, his defense has improved enormously. As I predicted. The Rockets are the 6th best team in the league in defensive efficiency, without a healthy Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley for most of the season. So just how bad could Harden’s defense be, for Pete’s sake?
It’s not bad, it’s good. And if you don’t believe that by the fact of the Rockets’ great team defense, then check this out: Harden’s patented Feltbot Defensive Snapshot (steals + blocks per 36) is a sterling 2.6. (Those who want more on FDS, see: Comment 23 and Comment 15)
Yes, I went there. Hey, this is Draymond Green’s favorite sausage stat. As he’ll tell you, steals and blocks “show effort.” And if that’s the case, Harden’s defensive effort this season — as opposed to last, when his FDS was a still decent 1.9 — is simply off the charts.
I firmly believe in Stephen Curry’s MVP candidacy. There are a number of great arguments for it. But this intelligence-insulting Bob Fitzgerald talking point is not one of them.
Second Unit Offense: Sorry for the digression, let’s get back to it. I tweeted during the game: “Kerr’s no-spacing, triangle, second unit offense is to Pop’s high PNR offense with a stretch 4 and stretch 5… as Pop Warner is to the pros.”
Let’s face it, Kerr’s second unit offense is an absolute disaster, that in my opinion would only have been made worse by Shaun Livingston’s non-shooting presence. And the worst thing about it is that it simply doesn’t have to be that way. Take a look at 10:11 4th Q, which is the closest Kerr has come this season to getting David Lee a PNR with a spread floor. If the Warriors ran that 20 straight times with Lee, they’d get 20 buckets. Or at worst, several trips to the line and several perfect passes to wide open three point shooters.
It’s not going to happen, that’s obvious to all right now. Kerr intends to stick to his system, come hell or high water. Lee didn’t get another opportunity until 7:58 4th Q, a PNR out of triangle action, when Mo Speights and his man were back parked under the basket, forcing Lee to pull up early.
I keep coming back to Don Nelson’s dictum: “If you’re going to play David Lee, you darn sure better go to him…” Steve Kerr is better off benching Lee than playing him as just another cog in the triangle.
And I think that should have you worried about the Warriors second unit against the Spurs. I know I’m worried.
Kawhi vs. Iggy: Iggy didn’t look much better in this matchup than Barnes. The much bigger Kawhi simply steamrolled him.
Isn’t it obvious that the Warriors need Draymond Green on Kawhi at all times? And isn’t it obvious that the Warriors will need Draymond Green on Lebron at all times, should that matchup occur?
How will Kerr manage that when the Spurs and Cavs open up with big lineups? Will Kerr change his rotation, or will he continue to serve up Black Falcon on a platter, with fava beans and a fine chianti?
The Popovich Defense: When Curry got hot in the third quarter, Pop responded by putting a bigger defender on him. In the playoffs two years ago, that defender was Danny Green. This time it was Kawhi Leonard. And the results were unsettling.
Curry has proven vulnerable to this tactic in the past. Both in the playoffs, and earlier this season, in a game when the Thunder put Kevin Durant on him for a quarter, and completely shut him down.
We’ll see this for real in the playoffs. In fact, it will be worse, because Pop is still hiding aspects of this defense from Kerr. The part where Kawhi picks up Curry at halfcourt, and ices him away from the pick.
Kerr’s adjustment: After a few assorted turnovers and disasters, Kerr responded to Kawhi on Curry by taking out Bogut, and going to the Draymond at center lineup.
And throwing away his system in favor of real, honest to goodness NBA pick and roll with a spread floor. The first high PNR of the game occurred at 3:55 3rd Q: Draymond layup. The second occurred on the next possession: Draymond put-back.
And that was the end of it. Duncan punished Draymond for an inside bucket at the other end, and Kerr abandoned ship.
He brought in McAdoo to play center just as Popovich, reading his mail, took Duncan out for the outside shooting Baynes. But that’s another story.
To Festus, or Not to Festus: Kerr initially brought in Festus to play center on the second unit, but quickly abandoned that in favor of Speights. The reason? I think it can only be that he needed the spacing against the Spurs defense.
Will this problem get better or worse when Livingston is playing?
All Ball: Speaking of Mr. Livingston, I find it interesting that the league suspended him for an unintentional act. Either that, or they’re calling him a liar.
Not a good look.
Curry’s Charlie-Horse: Late third quarter, Curry took a nasty Kawhi knee to the thigh while running a curl under the basket, and Kerr yanked him a few plays later, conceding the game. That got me thinking. One of the ideas behind playing Curry off the ball in a passing offense is that it helps keep him from wearing down, right? We have all seen how much energy he’s expended in the past battling the blitz in PNR.
And this idea has worked. In the regular season. But I wonder if it will keep working in the playoffs… If the opponent’s strategy is to beat Curry up whenever possible — and you can bet it will be — will they get more opportunities to beat him up out on the floor in pick and roll, or running under the basket on curls?
Can Curry take a whole series of Kawhi Leonard knees and elbows?
Klay Thompson: We all know that Popiavelli’s chief strategy against the Warriors will be to take Stephen Curry out down the stretch. And it looks like this season that will involve Kawhi Leonard as well as Danny Green.
Whichever All-World defender Curry draws, Klay will draw the other. Because taking Klay out of the game is next on Popiavelli’s list.
That’s why Barnes and Green must both come up huge for the Warriors to survive. But it’s not enough. For the Warriors to survive, Klay must also find a way to come up huge, no matter who is guarding him. Klay must turn the corner in his playoff career, starting right now, with the embarrassment of this game.
Two years ago, the rookie Klay Thompson got completely taken out of the series by Kawhi Leonard. Disappeared, off the face of the earth.
In this game, same thing. That simply cannot be allowed to happen if the Warriors are to beat the champs. And it shouldn’t ever happen. Not at this point in Klay’s career.
What should Klay do? Well, it actually starts with Steve Kerr. I don’t know if you remember early in the playoffs against the Clippers last year, when Mark Jackson simply forgot that Klay Thompson was on the team, and being guarded by JJ Redick, and got him 0 shots in a half, and I think 4 total for the game? What happened in this game is somewhat similar. The Spurs simply denied Klay the ball, and denied him three point shots, and Steve. Kerr. Let. Them.
By let them, I mean this: there are times, against great teams with great defenders and a great coach when your motion offense will simply not get your best players shots. It will not even get your best players touches. They are being denied. When that occurs, you must break your system to put the ball in your best player’s hands. The way Phil Jackson broke the triangle to let Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant take over, the way Don Nelson iso’d his best players when the illegal defense rules made that a slam-dunk, the way Pop has run high pick and roll for Parker and Ginobili, and McHale the same for Harden.
If you want to get Klay Thompson going against the world’s best defenders, Steve Kerr, just give him the damn ball, and set him a pick. It’s not your precious system, but it is the real world of playoff NBA basketball when you have a superstar in your pocket.
The rest is on Klay. And by that I mean that he has to get himself to the line. He cannot allow himself to coast through zero free throw performances like the one he had tonight. Blanketed by the length and physicality of Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green, he has to find a way to put the ball on the floor, drive the lane and Beard-Mode his way to the line. Over and over and over again.
If the Warriors are going to get by the Champs, Klay will have to man up, put on his big boy shoes, and fulfill his superstar promise. All game, every game.
It’s that time of year.