Spurs can exploit one key flaw in Warriors' playoff machine, but they'll need Kawhi
OAKLAND, Calif. — For a coach that’s led his team to five NBA titles and 50 wins in each of the past 100 years (OK, possibly a slight exaggeration), Gregg Popovich sure was playing the victim before the San Antonio Spurs‘ 122-105 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night.
“We get an extra guy against these guys, so they both get to start at point” Popovich said. “So it’s gonna be six against five.”
It wasn’t the only self-deprecating joke Popovich made before the game, either. He talked about prepping his strategy for the Warriors, “whatever that might be,” and said he thinks Steve Kerr’s son, Nick, who works with the Spurs, has been sending their secrets to his dad like a spy.
But there the Spurs were, hanging with the world champions despite being without MVP Finalist Kawhi Leonard, newly minted starting point guard Dejounte Murray and franchise legend Tony Parker. Eventually the Warriors’ talent took over as they pulled away in the third quarter, like they’ve done so many times this season, but San Antonio’s consistent effort wasn’t lost on Kerr.
“They just execute all game,” the Warriors coach said. “They just don’t make many mistakes. Every cut is a hard cut. Every time they catch the ball, they’re in an attack mode, and so they’re constantly putting pressure on you. … They are who they are. You know what’s coming, but you know they’re gonna stay consistent, and here they are in third place in the West without Kawhi all year.”
That execution is exactly what makes this team such a dangerous opponent for any team, but particularly the Warriors, come playoff time. The Spurs had 30 assists compared to just 10 turnovers on Saturday, and they are always among the teams with the fewest turnovers in the NBA.
“No matter who’s out of the lineup, who’s in the lineup, they just never get away from who they are,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said after the game. “They always defend. They don’t beat themselves. You have to beat them. When you make mistakes, they make you pay — and that’s no matter who they have in the lineup, which makes a difference, and it makes them tough.”
Amid Green’s flattering comments lies one sentence that provides a glimmer of hope for the Spurs should they get the opportunity to meet the Warriors in this year’s playoffs: “When you make mistakes, they make you pay.”
If there’s one thing that’s been the constant source of despair and frustration for Kerr over the past few years of Warriors success, it’s been their propensity for turning the ball over. Golden State’s fast-pace and pass-heavy offense has made them second to last in the league with 16 turnovers per game this season. As well as the Warriors played last postseason, they were 11th of 16 teams in turnovers per game. Those miscues are magnified in the playoffs when every possession is at more of a premium, especially against teams such as San Antonio.
Of course, no matter how well the Spurs play the “next man up” game, there’s no way they’re going to compete with the Warriors in the postseason without Leonard, who has played only nine games this year and was recently given the dreaded “indefinite” timetable while he recovers from a mysterious quad injury.
Even the best defensive teams in the league, which the Spurs are certainly among, need the offensive firepower to keep up with Golden State. Without Leonard, they just don’t have that. But, if he can somehow return at full strength, the Spurs will present as good a matchup as any Western Conference opponent due to their ability to create and capitalize off of turnovers.
The Rockets and Thunder might be the sexier picks but, as much as we might not want to admit it, the boring old Spurs might just be the biggest threat to the Warriors’ attempt to reach a fourth straight NBA Finals.
San Antonio also has another thing in its favor — adaptability. The Warriors create unique matchup problems, but the Spurs’ bevy of interchangeable parts makes that somewhat more manageable. Golden State forward David West, who spent the 2015-16 season with the Spurs, talked about the familial culture that the organization cultivates, that allows the 12th man on the team to step in and contribute when necessary.
“It’s a high-information environment, in terms of basketball stuff, life stuff,” West said. “It’s a very tight-knit organization and group of people.”
That culture is what has allowed the Spurs to become what Kerr called the best NBA franchise of the past 20 years, and that’s what will allow them to give the Warriors a run for their money in the playoffs.
They just need to get Leonard healthy.