The Golden State Warriors are going up against the bogeyman in the Western Conference Finals. The franchise that seems to own them at every turn. Despite the championship, the 73 wins, and now Kevin Durant to lead them with two-time MVP Stephen Curry, the San Antonio Spurs befuddles them in ways unforeseen. Even when the Cleveland Cavaliers beat them three straight times and the Oklahoma City Thunder raced to a 3-1 lead, it made sense. A Tony Parker-less, Pau Gasol, 39-year old Manu Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard-led team charging to a 25-point lead? The San Antonio Spurs always find a way.
For the entirety of the first half and into the second, the vaunted Warriors were outhustled on all loose balls, outcoached on bench rotations and offensive structure, outshot on open jumpers, and outwitted in the passing lanes. Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge came up with every offensive rebound and loose ball. Popovich exposed the beginning of 2nd quarter bench unit and hit guys like Lee and Gasol on the backside while switching against a stagnant Warriors offense. An offense that started to hunt matchups for Kevin Durant in a decision reminiscent of Harrison Barnes becoming a volume 20+ point scorer in the 2012 playoffs.
And finally, to not only beat the Warriors but to break their will means to take away the heartbeat known as Draymond Green. His passing was awry and led to Spurs fastbreaks left and right, culminating in a very soft foul as Danny Green coasted by him in transition. Even the 14-0 run in the second half didn’t make a dent as Draymond watched from the bench. And perhaps most frightening was Mike Brown’s lack of adjustment in that second quarter as the lead rose like an erupting volcano. The smallball lineup played a grand total of 1:11 and the halftime deficit sat at 20. The Warriors, favorites by a mile, were adjusting to the Spurs.
Then the second half and Steph put the Spurs in the pick-and-roll, got the ball back on the reverse swing and Steph blew by Pau Gasol for a quick 8-foot floater. The adjustment was made, perhaps from Steve Kerr who watched the game from the locker room, or perhaps from a logical perspective the Warriors should always function through regardless.
But the entire game, the entire series, and maybe even the Warriors’ season changed on a play that will reverberate through the entirety of this postseason. Dirty or not, the Zaza Pachulia slide under Kawhi Leonard’s ankle flipped the entire atmosphere. The Warriors went from throwing passes out of bounds, whining to the refs on every missed shot, and generally looking clueless, to breaking off a 16-0 run against a Spurs unit that couldn’t create off the dribble.
And in an ode to the Oracle crowds of yore, it felt like the arena was pumping in noise in what was one of the loudest efforts in a long, long time. The extended run allowed the sound to swallow up defensive possessions and explode in unison on the Steph Curry flurry. Three after three rained down, and in the fourth quarter, the two MVPs banded together to take them home.
After sparsely using the smallball lineup in the first half, Mike Brown went to a Shaun Livingston-infused 5 to end the last seven minutes and was rewarded with an and-one turnaround and a left-handed dunk. In a preview for the rest of the games, Livingston set a ball screen, got the ball down the middle and flipped it to an open Klay in the corner, Draymond-style. They went from down 4 to winning by 2.
And in a more comforting sight for Warriors fans, the KD-Steph two-man game worked to perfection down the stretch as they found each other open repeatedly against an exhausted Spurs defense.
Now the Warriors find themselves up 1-0 in the series, against a hobbled Kawhi Leonard, and a nation questioning why they have all the luck known to humankind in dispatching opponents en route to the third installment of Cleveland-Golden State. To which the Warriors can respond with Steph Curry’s knee taking him out of the postseason for two weeks before a return that saw him sapped of quickness and energy throughout entire halves and even games. As for Zaza Pachulia, one can’t expect to know his true intentions, except to note that he is the type of player that is perpetually too close to everything on any given possession. He once took out Durant’s knee for 5 weeks.
Then the idea of luck becomes more a matter of personal preference when you consider who is actually missing. Was George Hill and Jusuf Nurkic really going to push the Warriors past more than maybe an extra game? Kawhi’s health certainly grants the Warriors a win Sunday afternoon but were they suddenly favorites after stealing one on the road in a trap game if there was one? Then there’s the underlying theme right now that the Warriors are still very much banged up with Livingston, Iguodala, and Durant nursing injuries.
The NBA postseason sometimes feels like a war on attrition. Two years ago, the Warriors made it through unscathed. Last season, they lost on the narrowest of margins. And so far in the third deep run through, they have assembled the firepower and structure to position themselves 3 wins away from the Finals. If that’s lucky, then the Warriors will live with it.