OAKLAND, Calif. — As the Golden State Warriors have transformed themselves into an NBA superpower over the past three years, the one team they’ve consistently avoided in the postseason is the San Antonio Spurs.
That won’t be the case any longer. Sunday afternoon, the Warriors and Spurs will engage in a Mother’s Day matinee here at Oracle Arena to begin the Western Conference finals, the first meeting between the two teams since San Antonio won a six-game series in the 2013 Western Conference semis.
Here are five things to focus on as the two teams with the most wins over the past two seasons square off for the right to advance to the NBA Finals.
1. Can San Antonio stay big?
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich has always preferred to play traditionally, with a pair of big men on the floor. It may fly in the face of everything that’s hip in the NBA these days, but it’s certainly been effective for San Antonio. It even worked against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals, when the Spurs stayed big for long stretches and hammered Houston on the boards.
Doing the same thing against Golden State, however, is another challenge entirely. The Rockets, while employing a lethal offense, have a relatively straightforward approach: give the ball to James Harden, run a high pick-and-roll and let him attack. Golden State possesses several lethal options, and in addition to having weapons like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, the Warriors also have 6-foot-7 forward Draymond Green, who can run the offense like a point guard, as well as several other players who are excellent cutters.
The Warriors will be able to force the Spurs into uncomfortable matchups far more often than the Rockets did. How San Antonio handles that, and if Popovich is willing to shift away from his preferred style even more than he did against the Rockets, will be a major key.
2. How healthy is Kawhi Leonard?
If there was any doubt Leonard was going to play after sitting out of Game 6 against the Rockets with a sprained left ankle, Popovich ended it Saturday afternoon.
“He’s going to play,” Popovich said. When that question was followed up with another asking if Leonard was able to fully participate in practice Saturday, the coach answered, “Absolutely.”
But while Popovich and the Spurs obviously felt comfortable with their chances in a potential Game 7 when choosing to sit Leonard in Game 6, it also seems reasonable to think that if Leonard was fully healthy, he would have played regardless.
If San Antonio is going to make this series competitive, it needs Leonard to play like the MVP of the playoffs he had clearly been through the opening four games of the Rockets series. Leonard, the best two-way player in the NBA, has the ability to single-handedly neutralize one of Golden State’s weapons, something few teams possess, while also operating as the hub of San Antonio’s offense.
Leonard needs to be able to operate at peak efficiency for the Spurs to be successful. If he’s not, this series is over before it has even begun.
3. Can Andre Iguodala make a shot?
While the Warriors have steamrolled their way through the first two rounds of the playoffs, one potential trouble spot has been Andre Iguodala’s outside shooting. Iguodala missed his first 18 three-point attempts before going 2-for-3 in Game 3 against Utah, and then making his lone try from behind the arc in Game 4.
Still, when the Warriors go small, with Green at center surrounded by Curry, Thompson, Durant and Iguodala (their deadliest lineup combination), opponents gladly leave Iguodala open. In fact, it might be the only way any team can effectively combat that small lineup despite no guarantee it will work.
Iguodala will be forced to prove his uptick at the end of the Jazz series will carry over Sunday. And if he starts misfiring against the Spurs, they will let him keep shooting until he makes a few. In fact, given the other options available to the Warriors, Popovich may allow Iguodala to keep shooting even if he makes a dozen in a row.
4. How will the Warriors deploy their rotation?
Although Coach Steve Kerr was back at practice Saturday and in coaches meetings each of the past two days, there still remains no timetable for his return to the sideline. And while his interim replacement, Mike Brown, has largely kept things the same while minding the shop, the one area where he and Kerr have differed a bit is in rotations.
While Kerr has been willing to play virtually everyone on the roster even in the most pressure-packed situations, Brown has been more conservative so far, riding hot hands longer and condensing his rotation at times. This could wind up an issue at the start of the second and fourth quarters, when both Curry and Durant tend to be on the bench and the Warriors, at times, have struggled to score.
As the playoffs progress, Brown is likely to lean on his stars even more, leading to fewer instances of Curry and Durant on the bench at the same time. Since Curry prefers to play the entire first and third quarters, it will likely be Durant who sees his minutes adjusted so as to be out there with the second group.
5. Can Jonathon Simmons have an encore to his coming out party against Houston?
The only things that give Golden State fits are length and athleticism. This is why of all the teams in the league, the one that’s given them the most trouble is Milwaukee. And it’s also why one of the most important players in this series for the Spurs could be backup forward Jonathon Simmons.
The 6-6 wing earned himself a bunch of money as an upcoming restricted free agent with his breakout series against the Rockets, averaging 13.2 points and shooting 48.7 percent from the field. When Popovich went small, playing Simmons along with Leonard and Danny Green, it gave San Antonio another rangy athlete to utilize against Houston’s small lineups.
He needs to make a similar impact against Golden State for San Antonio to have a chance, probably in even more minutes than he played against Houston. As highlighted above, while Popovich likes to play big, he’s going to have to play small for extended stretches of this series. The ability of Simmons to succeed in those spots is a big reason those lineups were successful in the previous round.
San Antonio is probably the best coached and most well drilled team in the NBA. The Spurs will never beat themselves; it’s going to require a knockout punch to take them down.
The problem is that the Warriors have the ability to do just that, in several ways. Popovich has managed to maximize his team’s talent, but San Antonio’s limitations — particularly defensively and especially given the size and age of its roster — will be too much to be overcome against a team with as much firepower as Golden State.
The result will be the Warriors reaching a third straight NBA Finals.
Warriors in 5