The Western Conference Finals begin Sunday, and feature a battle of the teams with the two top records in the NBA over the past two seasons. San Antonio survived a tough battle with Houston where they outlasted and eventually broke the spirit of the Rockets, despite losing Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard by series end. Leonard is back for Game 1 vs. Golden State, who have absolutely ripped through the Western playoffs without a loss so far.
Here’s a look at what each team will need if they want to advance to the NBA Finals.
THE WARRIORS WILL WIN IF…
They control the pace
Eventually, the Spurs were able to get the Rockets back under control. It was a seesaw, but by getting their offensive efficiency up to force the Rockets to take the ball out of bounds, the Spurs dictated the pace. The Warriors are a different animal. They are better and more insistent at establishing their pace. They will run off makes, and their ability to launch quick 3-pointers from anywhere on the floor means they can get transition points even if the defense gets back. They played one of the slowest teams in the league in Utah, and their playoff pace is still only slightly down from their regular season mark.
San Antonio’s two-big lineups struggle when you get ahead of them. They are still resilient and disciplined in transition, but the Splash Brothers’ ability to just pull up from wherever on the floor threatens that. When the Warriors push, you’re more likely to get caught in cross-matches that won’t work for you. And in those situations, there’s always a counter that their versatility can exploit. If LaMarcus Aldridge gets crossed on a wing and manages to maintain space to prevent a 3-pointer, he can get taken off the dribble. Trevor Ariza couldn’t exploit that. The Warriors’ wings can.
If it’s an offensive series
The Spurs don’t have as many weapons. That was true with Parker. It’s worse without him. San Antonio needs this to be a grind, a slugfest. The Warriors can win that, too. Their defense is just as elite. They can win that kind of game. But the Spurs can’t keep up in a back-and-forth affair. They have guys who can step up and score beyond Leonard and Aldridge– Mills, Danny Green, Jonathon Simmons, apparently– but actual weapons, who can go out and get 20-plus, they are way short on. If the Warriors make this series about who has more weapons and not team-units, it’s going to go their way very quickly.
If Draymond Green wins his matchup
This is not a small element. The Warriors’ offense is in part predicated by their omniscient spacing, and that spacing is predicated by their ability to spread the floor with Green at 4 or 5, and their ability to play those lineups is predicated on his ability to defend any player, at any position, at any time, at an elite level.
In this series, he’ll find himself on switches vs. Kawhi Leonard often, and that’s tough because of Leonard’s ability to score in mid-range off the dribble (if he’s healthy). But a lot of the time, it’s going to be Green vs. LaMarcus Aldridge, and it’s exactly the kind of matchup that Green excels at beating, against all odds. Aldridge is taller and bigger. He’s able to move Green when he absolutely wants to:
But most of the time, he’s going to settle for this:
That turnaround jumpshot is his go-to. It’s a low-percentage look that is going to be highly contested. If Green forces him to that shot, keeps him away from the basket, and keeps him and Gasol off the offensive glass, it takes away the Spurs’ counter. They’ll have very little left after that.
If Kevin Durant is the best player in the series OR if Stephen Curry is the best player in the series
The Spurs beat the Grizzlies, even with Mike Conley being nearly as good as Leonard. They beat the Rockets despite James Harden being the only MVP candidate left standing at its edge. But neither possess the ability to fundamentally shift the game like Curry and Durant do, and neither had another such player on their team.
Let’s say the Spurs get this game where they want it. They’ve ground it down to a slow pace. They’ve controlled the glass. They’ve mucked up and frustrated two of the three Splash Brothers or Cousins or whatever you want to call them now that Durant is around. After all that, Curry or Durant (or Thompson for that matter) can just take over. One of the fundamental issues with Golden State is that they can simply render defense moot. You can do everything right, and they’ll still make shots. Or you’ll do everything right in defending those shots, and that means you have to surrender cuts and easy baskets. If Durant or Curry just have the types of games they’re capable of, there’s just not a lot San Antonio can do.
If they create live ball turnovers
The Spurs have given up the third most steals per 100 possessions this postseason. That’s alarming given how much control the Spurs need to play with. They can’t give up live-ball turnovers. They’re 7th in the postseason in points allowed off turnovers per 100 possessions, which isn’t bad considering how many opportunities they’re allowing, but you have to think of it this way. The Warriors do all those things other teams did that worked against you, only way, way better. If the Spurs are giving up run-outs without Tony Parker, they’re giving the Warriors points they don’t have to work for, and that’s doom.
THE SPURS WILL WIN IF…
They grind the game down
This is more of a prerequisite. The Spurs aren’t going to win this series if it’s an up and down affair. They can’t trade buckets with the Warriors. Gregg Popovich criticized the Spurs’ play in Game 1 against the Rockets, saying they didn’t play “wisely” offensively. When a guy makes a bucket, you rush to the other end to try and get one back, and that’s when the Warriors start creating a negative feedback loop where you’re missing quick looks, they’re running and making, you’re pushing, and it gets away from you. You have to keep control of the game and make everything difficult for the Warriors.
The Warriors hate it when the offense isn’t flowing, when things are difficult. Sure, they’re tough and resilient. They came back from down 3-1 to the Thunder last year. But their game is predicated on joy. Take that away and their frustration gets to them, which is how hey wound up down 3-1 to begin with. San Antonio has to make the game miserable.
They control the boards
This one’s fairly obvious, but it’s important. It’s not just about offensive rebounds. It’s about making the Warriors have to worry about defensive rebounds, which means the Warriors have to take more time on that, and less time sprinting up the floor. And it’s not just about defensive rebounds. It’s about limiting the opportunity for 3-pointers off offensive rebounds. The Warriors are masters at punishing you off offensive rebounds with 3’s launched while the defense is still trying to convert to offense. The Spurs don’t need to run off misses, they need to slow it down.
This is going to mean Pau Gasol is going to have to box out. JaVale McGee is a problem on these since he can tip the ball in over even tall defenders, and if he doesn’t get called for over the back there’s not much to be done. Wrestling with Zaza Pachulia is similarly a problem, and of course Green is an issue.
More than that, though, it’s going to have to be a team focus. The Warriors’ volume of 3-pointers, like the Rockets’, leads to longer rebounds and to get to those, you need guards attacking the glass as well. It’s going to have to be a collective effort… all while making sure to get back in transition defense.
Kawhi Leonard is the best player in the series
Leonard lost his matchup with Durant last year. He’s been a better player this year than at any point in his career. He has to be flawless on both ends. If he’s on Durant, he has to find ways to take an efficient scorer and drag his efficiency down. If he’s on Curry, he has to force turnovers and take away his explosiveness.
Offensively, the Warriors are likely to do to him what the Spurs did to James Harden, sending swiping help defenders on drives and multiple levels of defense between him and the rim. Leonard’s incredible ability to hit contested shots will be … ahem, tested in this series. He has to win his matchup, against all odds.
Run off with abandon
Running off Warriors 3-pointers is difficult to begin with. So much of their action comes off the dribble, behind screens, preventing a clean run-off. But in those situations where the Spurs have decided to bring help, they have to close out with abandon, running them completely off. You can’t pull up because you’re concerned about a pump-fake and drive. Deal with the drive when the drive comes. Stop the 3-pointer, no matter what.
The Warriors have shifted to attacking the rim more. Their 3-point rate isn’t as gaudy as it has been in recent years. But it’s where they have the biggest advantage over the Spurs. San Antonio has to give their shooters pause, and the only way to do that is to close and contest as hard as possible.