It has finally happened. The two-best teams in the Western Confernece over the past three years will meet for the first time in the playoffs during that span.
By virtue of the San Antonio Spurs’ dominating series-clinching Game 6 win over Houston on Thursday, Gregg Popovich’s squad will now head to Oakland to take on the two-time defending conference champion Warriors for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday.
In a playoff slate that has lacked drama and intrigue, this matchup should be about as exciting as it gets. While Steve Kerr likely won’t be on hand to lead his Warriors against the coach’s mentor in Pop, his system is still in place. It is a system that has pushed the Warriors to the brink of a third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.
On the other hand, San Antonio is looking to show the NBA that Golden State has not passed it as the model franchise in the Association.
From the differing tempos these two teams display to an interesting matchup between Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, here are the seven biggest keys for the 2017 Western Conference Finals.
Despite Kerr learning a whole heck of a lot as it relates to his coaching style from Popovich, these two squads boast extremely different offensive philosophies. Golden State will run you up and down the court, while San Antonio looks to control the pace with a slow-it-down model.
Put it this way. Golden State ranked in the top nine of the Association in shots per game at 87.1. On the other hand, Pop’s bunch ranked in the bottom seven at 83.7. This might not seem like a huge difference, but it amounts to nearly 280 more shots for the Warriors during the course of the 82-game regular season slate.
In terms of advanced stats, the Warriors ranked No. 4 overall in pace with San Antonio coming in among the bottom four. That’s a huge difference. And in reality, whoever wins the tempo battle here will likely come out on top when all is said and done.
There’s a few different aspects to look at here. One of the primary reasons Golden State is able to push the ball is because it ranked No. 1 in the NBA in steals. That sets up fast-break opportunities and a much faster tempo. To counter this, San Antonio ranked in the top 10 in giveaways. This enables the Spurs to play at a slow-it-down pace.
One of the issues here for San Antonio is the injury to Tony Parker. Sure Patty Mills has played well in his stead, but he’s going to be facing an extremely strong, pressure-oriented perimeter defense.
The likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant combined to average nearly five steals per game during the regular year. Add in Draymond Green’s surprising perimeter defense, and this could be an issue for San Antonio. In any event, tempo will surely be one of the deciding factors here.
This goes to pace of play. If a team is able to grab the rebound on defense following a perimeter shot, it can usually force the action down the court. That’s something the previously weak-rebounding Warriors have been good at this season. Durant averaged a career high 8.3 rebounds, matching his season-high of 7.6 defensive boards, during the regular year.
Meanwhile, Green went for nearly eight boards per game with the center duo of JaVale McGee and Zaza Pachulia combining for nearly 10 boards per outing. Those are the basic stats to look at here. But they don’t tell the entire story, especially against San Antonio.
The Spurs ranked outside of the top 13 in both total rebounds and offensive rebounds during the regular year. Golden State was in the top 1o in defensive rebounds, but ranked in the bottom 11 in offensive rebounds. Simply put, neither team is an elite-model of efficiency in this aspect of the game.
The biggest key here will likely be how the combination of LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol perform against Golden State’s much more capable rebounding frontcourt trio of Green, McGee and Pachulia.
We also wouldn’t be surprise if Dewayne Dedmon, who the Warriors courted in free agency last summer, played a role here. He averaged a very strong 6.5 rebounds in 17.5 minutes of action during the regular year. In fact, it would not shock us if Dedmon played a role large enough that Gasol saw his minutes diminish. After all, Gasol has struggled a whole heck of a lot against the Warriors in recent outings.
Pau Gasol past five games against the Warriors:
9.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 35 percent -13.6 (+/-) pic.twitter.com/N5sOu2n3Lv
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) May 12, 2017
This could force San Antonio to decide against keeping alive Gasol’s mid-range and perimeter game in exchange for Dedmon’s ability in the low-post. That could either work in the Spurs’ favor or lead to Golden State taking advantage of a lack of shooting from Pop’s squad.
3. Kawhi Leonard vs Kevin Durant
Outside of either player going up against LeBron James, this is the most-optimal small forward battle in the recent history of the Association. Two elite-level scorers taking on one another in a battle for a shot at the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
What makes this specific matchup so interesting is the role reversal of the two players involved. Leonard has been seen as a defensive stopper since entering the Spurs’ rotation as a rookie back in 2011-12. Though, the two-time reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year has upped his game to a new level on offense.
This past regular season saw Leonard average 25.5 points per game while shooting at a 49 percent mark from the field. He also ranked ninth in defensive rating and sixth in defensive win shares — a clear indication that Leonard has not regressed on that end of the court.
Interestingly enough, it’s Durant’s progression on defense that enabled him to put up his most efficient season in his first year with the Warriors. The former MVP ranked sixth in defensive rating and 11th in defensive win shares. Basically, that puts him somewhere near Leonard’s level on defense.
Keeping in tune with advanced stats to prove our point, Durant and Leonard ranked second and third respectively in player efficiency among all NBA players during the regular season. Talk about elite-level all-around games here.
The stunning aspect of this one-on-one duel has to be the overall efficiency of both Leonard and Durant on offense. It really is remarkable.
Kawhi Leonard vs Kevin Durant is an elite matchup. pic.twitter.com/St3p2gR2Bj
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) May 12, 2017
Let’s just hope the ankle injury that forced Leonard to miss Game 6 against the Rockets doesn’t slow him down in the conference finals. The NBA needs at least one intriguing matchup before what many consider to be an inevitable Cavaliers-Warriors Finals.
4. Putting a body on Stephen Curry
San Antonio is as good as any team in the NBA when it comes to switching out on the perimeter. Its defense is also at an elite level in terms of handling pick and rolls on the outside. Conversely, Golden State relies on mismatches created by said movement out on the perimeter. This enables Curry to take way more uncontested outside shots than a two-time reigning NBA MVP should be allowed.
Curry shot at a 65 percent mark on uncontested shots from the 20-24 foot range during the regular year. This enabled him to put up a 68 percent effective field goal percentage in said situations. Simply put, when he’s left alone on the outside, Curry is pretty much money.
The Spurs might miss Tony Parker’s leadership on the court, but they won’t miss his defensive liabilities in this series. That much cannot be denied. Whether it is Patty Mills or Jonathon Simmons guarding Curry when San Antonio isn’t switch heavy, either player stands a better chance against Curry.
Though, we can surely expect the Spurs to utilize their heavy-switch defense as a way to throw Curry off his game. That’s where Leonard comes into play as a stopper on defense. Some might conclude that because the Spurs’ defense matches up well against Curry, he has struggled against the team. That hasn’t been the case.
Stephen Curry against Spurs since start of 2014-15 season (nine games):
48.6 FG%, 37.5 3PT% pic.twitter.com/0UDY37Tit7
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) May 12, 2017
The Spurs have done a decent job limiting Curry’s success from three-point range during this span. Though, due to the team’s switch-heavy scheme, Curry has had more success driving to the line and distributing. He’s shooting 59 percent from two-point range and is averaging north of six assists during this nine-game span.
It will be interesting to see how San Antonio plays this with Parker sidelined. It should have more overall success guarding Curry. The only question here is whether Pop and Co. change up their scheme to take Parker’s absence into account.
5. Home-court advantage
Let’s get this absurd stat out of the way here quickly. The Warriors have won a total of two regular season games in San Antonio since the end of the 1996-97 season, the last year San Antonio played without Tim Duncan until this season.
There’s some obvious reasons behind this, primarily the Spurs’ domination and the Warriors’ bottom-feeding status for the majority of this 20-plus year stretch. Still, it’s a rather interesting thing to take into account.
There is somewhat of a silver lining here for the Warriors. Both wins have come in the past two seasons and they have posted by far the best road record in the NBA since Steve Kerr took over as the team’s head coach back in 2014-15.
During that span, the Warriors are 93-30 away from Oracle Arena. At home during this stretch, Golden State is an absurd 114-9 at home. These numbers can be skewed a tad considering just how dominant of a regular-season team the Warriors have been over the past three years.
However, the playoffs are somewhat of a different story. As to where Golden State has a .927 home winning percentage during the regular season, its mark stands at 24-5 in the postseason. Better competition surely plays a role here, but it’s still something to focus on.
It’s also important to note that the Spurs have been no slouch at home. They finished last season with single-season NBA best 40-1 mark at AT&T Center. That said, Pop’s team was a bit more vulnerable at 30-11 this past regular season and was blown out by 27 at home in Game 1 of the conference semifinals against Houston.
Golden State put the work in to gain home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. But one slip up at home could push this series directly in San Antonio’s favor. With a 30-11 regular season road mark, the Spurs will surely be looking to take advantage.
Even if Kerr were to somehow make a miraculous return to the bench, this is one area San Antonio has a clear advantage. And in reality, it doesn’t just start with Popovich. Sure his five NBA title and wealth of experience helps. But Kerr has soaked that in more than any other coach in the NBA.
Instead, some could argue it’s all about the staff Pop continues to build even after losing multiple assistants to head coaching jobs.
Ettore Messina has vast experience as a head coach overseas. Ime Udoka is one of the most-respected young assistants in the game. Becky Hammon continues to rise in the ranks. All three have been linked as potential head coaches for others teams and will likely end up being a part of Pop’s extensive coaching tree.
This isn’t to say the Warriors don’t have a tremendous staff. Heck, two of Kerr’s top assistants from his first couple years as the Warriors head coach (Alvin Gentry and Luke Walton) have moved on to top positions elsewhere. Ron Adams is the best defensive mind of the modern NBA era. Jarron Collins will likely end up being a head coach one day.
The issue here is that acting head coach Mike Brown really doesn’t compare at all to Popovich when it comes to in-game strategy. Brown has earned a trip to the Finals as a head coach. He will undoubtedly end up being a head coach one day. He’s not Gregg Popovich. And unlike Kerr, he’s not close to the Spurs head coach in terms of prestige. That’s a simple fact.
Sure Brown has a full season under Kerr to adapt his system. He also speaks to the Warriors’ sidelined head coach multiple times on a daily basis. But unless Brown somehow finds a way to text Kerr during timeouts, that will not narrow the gap between the acting head coach and Popovich.
7. Draymond keeping his cool
You knew this had to be coming. As the playoffs continue to unfold and with Green remaining relatively well behaved (on the court), the All-Star will be placed under a microscope. Really, he only has himself to blame for this.
Whether it’s the constant complaining to officials or one of his legs questionably flying up into the mid-section of an opponent, Green has the eye of NBA decision makers.
It started in the playoffs last year against Oklahoma City and culminated in Green being suspended for Game 5 of the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s a suspension that many believe led to Golden State blowing a 3-1 series lead against LeBron and Co. Heck, Green blames himself for the team’s meltdown.
More so than Green’s divisive mentality on the court, the focus here has to be on his importance to the Warriors. The team stands no real chance in this series should he be sidelined for a extensive period of time. Green is one of the top-10 all-around players in the NBA. However questionable that statement may be, no one can doubt his value to the Warriors.
Green finished the regular season No. 1 in the NBA in defensive plus-minus and No. 2 in the Association in defensive wins share. In fact, the Warriors were an absurd +10.8 when he was on the court during the regular year.
You can’t take that away and expect to contend with the experience San Antonio brings to the table. With this experience will come a mentality to goat Green into regressing into the type of player we saw in the playoffs last year. Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge will be key components here. Should Green take the bait, it will surely favor San Antonio.