NBA Western Conference Finals Preview: Warriors vs. Spurs
Two days. That's the rest advantage the Golden State Warriors, having finished their sweep of the Utah Jazz Monday night, will have heading into their Western Conference Finals matchup with the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs will be at even more of a disadvantage than they would have been otherwise.
In previous seasons, the Spurs' playoff experience would have mitigated the Warriors' two-day edge, but the days of Tim Duncan are over. Even long-time point guard Tony Parker -- out for the remainder of the season with a ruptured quadriceps tendon -- will be on the shelf for this one.
Today, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Patty Mills, and Kawhi Leonard are what's left of the Spurs' mainstays. Of all available players, the Spurs have 797 playoff games between them, with 334 coming from the 39-year-old Ginobili and 36-year-old Pau Gasol.
On the other side is a younger, yet playoff-tested, Golden State team with 792 combined playoff games under their belts. And the oldest players among them are the 36-year-old David West and 37-year-old Matt Barnes -- minimum contributors from their bench roles.
Will San Antonio's marginal level of seniority provide them any advantage, though? Against the Warriors, it's not likely.
Either way, the Spurs won't have to worry about their best player and his availability. According to ESPN's Michael C. Wright, Leonard will play in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals after sustaining an ankle injury in Game 5 against the Houston Rockets and missing Game 6.
Ready or not, the series tips off on Sunday afternoon in Oakland, so the Spurs will have to prepare themselves the best they can in the next 48 hours. We know that head coach Gregg Popovich will have his guys ready, but will their best be enough?
Golden State Warriors (1)
Championship Odds: 54.8%
San Antonio Spurs (2)
Championship Odds: 19.7%
Regular Season Series - Spurs 2, Warriors 1
If we're being real, we can't read all that much into the regular season series between the two teams. But that's not just because it was the regular season. It has a lot more to do with player availability.
With at least one usual starter missing from either side for each of the contests, the three-game series was riddled by injuries and rest nights. In fact, in the Western Conference foes' March 11th meeting, only 3 of 10 starters took the floor. There was no Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, or Kawhi Leonard.
In what turned out to be a meaningless game, the Spurs won by the score of 107 to 85. The Spurs -- led by Mills' 21 points -- had five guys score in double-figures and out-shot the Warriors 12 to 5 from three-point range.
To start out the year, the Warriors were clearly still feeling out their new roster makeup. Despite 53 from the duo of Curry and Durant, San Antonio spoiled Golden State's home opener with a 129-100 route of the preseason favorites. Leonard looked unstoppable as he posted 35 points, alongside Aldridge's 26.
If you absolutely had to pick one, the most recent matchup is probably most indicative of what we can expect in the coming days. Durant remained out with a knee, but the Warriors pulled out a 110-98 road win nevertheless.
Curry scored 29 and found support in Thompson, West, and Andre Iguodala, who combined for 52 points between them. Meanwhile, the Warriors' defense slowed Leonard and company, allowing just 36 to Leonard and Aldridge.
Playoff games are never won based on head-to-head regular season records, but that's even truer for these two teams. No matter the outcome, there's no way we can place too much stock in past results.
How the Warriors Can Win
Saying the Warriors need to make threes is like saying the Cookie Monster needs to eat cookies. It's the lifeblood of the team, and more times than not, it's going to happen.
It's worth mentioning, though, for the fact that the Spurs ranked among the top teams in defending the three all season long. Across the board, the stats say it all.
|Spurs Defense||3P Attempt Rate||3PA Per Game||3PM Per Game||3P%||eFG%|
Forget the 8.1 makes the Spurs limited teams to during the regular season. It doesn't take that to see the importance of the three for the Warriors' offense.
In the 21 games in which they failed to register double-digit treys, Curry and the boys went just 8-13, opposed to 59-2 when tallying 10 or more. It might be obvious that the three will play a key part in this series, but it could be the difference between the Warriors dropping a game or two and simply coasting through to their third straight Finals.
Warriors Player to Watch - Andre Iguodala
Yes -- side-by-side with four All-Stars, Igduodala could be the most important of all the Warriors players. Why?
Green on Curry
Murray on Klay
Kawhi (?) on KD
Simmons on Draymond
Aldridge vs. JaVale
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 12, 2017
This lineup is certainly a possibility for the Spurs, and one version seemed to have worked against the Rockets in Round 2. That being said, the Warriors aren't the Rockets. And, at that, the Rockets don't have a secret weapon on the other side of their primary lineup.
What Iguodala brings to the Warriors is death, in the best sense of the word. That is, the infamous Megadeath lineup -- with Iguodala at the three or four -- could be the lineup that proves too much for the Spurs when all is said and done.
While it's true that the Warriors' versatile lineup struggled in limited time against the Spurs, it has also produced a net rating (points minus opponent points per 100 possessions) of 12.2 in 29 minutes this postseason. At a net rating of 23.9, it was even better in 224 regular season minutes.
The key ingredient? Iguodala and his defensive prowess.
How the Spurs Can Win
So long as Kawhi returns at full health, the Spurs have an outside shot. One of the key factors that will determine whether that happens is Leonard's level of play.
To beat a great all-around team like the Warriors, Leonard will have to sustain the play he has put together to this point. Through 11 games, The Claw leads the postseason field in player efficiency rating (32.4), win shares (2.8), and win shares per 48 minutes (.330).
As we alluded to previously, however, the Spurs will need much more than Leonard. He's not a guy accustomed to scoring 40 or 50 on nothing but contested shots. So San Antonio will rely on their bench to pick up some slack when the Warriors break their starting lineup.
Whereas the Spurs have five players who averaged at least 5.1 points per game off the bench -- for a total of 35.6 between them -- the Warriors' five such players averaged roughly four fewer points over the course of the regular season (31.3).
Of course, that's not a large margin, but that's why the Spurs' other players will have to be that much better in order to combat a Golden State starting lineup that boasts three players averaging 22.3-plus points apiece.
Spurs Player to Watch - Jonathon Simmons
Brandon Gdula just recently touched on how Jonathon Simmons quickly became the key to the Rockets series. And -- missing out on the production of a Parker -- the inexperienced 27-year-old will have to continue to play above expectations.
Against the Warriors, Simmons played a total of 56 minutes (18.6 per game), yet he made the most of his time, racking up a defensive rating of 90.9 and a net rating of 25.3. On 55% shooting, the two-way guard turned out 8.7 points with a three-pointer and 2.3 rebounds in his time on the floor.
In the playoffs, Simmons has been nearly as effective in 11 pressure-packed games. Across just 17.8 minutes, he has a net rating of 10.7, yielding 8.8 points, 1.5 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per game. And, since Parker's departure from Game 2, Simmons has contributed 13.5 points on 47.8% in 25.2 minutes a game.
Clearly, he's answered the call when his team needed him most. When you combine his regular season success versus the Warriors and his postseason breakout, there shouldn't be any doubt that Simmons' play is crucial to a competitive series.
Ultimately, Leonard will continue to be great, but it won't be nearly enough against one of the league's best and most versatile defenses. Unless Aldridge, Gasol, and Ginobili turn the clock back to their primes simultaneously, it's hard to imagine this going past five games.
You have to respect the Spurs because they're the Spurs and Kawhi should be good for at least one win. Nonetheless, the Warriors will present more offensive versatility than the Rockets offered in the previous round. In addition, they're more likely to be on than off most nights from beyond the arc.
This one will be intriguing -- the Spurs' chances just don't bode well in a possible seven-game series. The numbers and matchups are overwhelmingly in favor of Golden State, who have a bit of destiny in their favor as well. If they hope to right last year's wrongs, they won't let San Antonio get in the way of what looks to be an inevitable 2016 Finals rematch between them and the Cavaliers.
According to our algorithms: Warriors are 65.85% favorites.
My final prediction: Warriors in 5.