2018 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 92, Golden State 113
Golden State leads series 1-0

That went about as poorly as possible.

In a rematch of the very lopsided 2017 Western Conference Finals, the two teams looked like they were playing Game 5 of that series, rather than Game 1 of a  new series from a new season. Once again, the Spurs looked completely lost and inept on both ends of the ball without their star player, Kawhi Leonard.

The Warriors–coming off of a very sluggish finish to the season–faced no resistance on offense, putting up an easy 113 points. The one semi-consistent variable of the Spurs’ season was their team defense, and it was absolutely abysmal in Game 1 (when the game actually mattered, at least). What is really baffling is it looks likes the Spurs completely changed their scheme against the Warriors to a switch-heavy system where every player 1-4 switched everything no matter what. (This is similar to what the Rockets are doing this season.)

This might be an effective strategy against the Warriors, but it’s way too much to ask a team to completely change its core defensive principles in Game 83 of the season. The point of the regular season is to build and ingrain good habits, so that when it really matters, the players react instinctively. If too much thinking is involved, mistakes are made, time is wasted, and players begin to second-guess things.

It was quite evident that the Spurs just weren’t comfortable with this scheme. In the first quarter, the Warriors got plenty of open looks at the rim and from the 3-point line, abusing the Spurs poor execution of their defensive scheme. The switching also resulted in too many mismatches, with Kevin Durant being guarded by Patty Mills, for example. The Warriors are not afraid to exploit those mismatches.

Another big factor here was the Warriors changing their starting line-up, inserting Andre Iguodala as the “point guard”, essentially going to a big and interchangeable lineup with no traditional PG. The Spurs started with their “small” lineup, which has been very effective in the latter portion of the season.

The main problem with this lineup is that there is nobody for Mills to guard. He is too small to cover any player except an opposing PG or the occasional smaller 2-Guard. Unfortuantely, the Warriors have a very big (and very good) 2-Guard in Klay Thompson. Without a PG on the court, every match-up was a mismatch for Mills, and the Warriors happily exploited this by shooting over him or bullying him in the post, depending on who he ended up on.

On the other end of the court, the Warriors bullied the Spurs out of the paint and made every simple action difficult. This is where the memories of last season’s series came back most vividly. The Warriors defense, when locked in, makes the Spurs offense look bad. Every pass is a struggle, every pick and roll seems to lead nowhere (or worse, deeper into the defense), and every shot is difficult and guarded. Nothing comes easy, and the Spurs’ offense needs easy points from somewhere.

If you watched the first quarter of this game having never seen the Spurs play before (but knowing basketball), you would think that Patty Mills was our star guard. Every action seemed to revolve around him in some way, and the ball was in his hands way too much. Patty isn’t good enough to create his own offense against average defenses, let alone one as good as a locked-in Warriors defense.

This isn’t to pick on Patty. He’s very good at what he does. He is just being asked to do something other than that, and he won’t succeed. Without another actual guard on the floor, Patty probably shouldn’t play. Which mean he might have to come off the bench to match minutes with Quinn Cook, Shaun Livingston, and Nick Young.

LaMarcus Aldridge also had a really tough outing, again recalling the ghosts of 2017. I hope this series doesn’t negatively color what was a tremendous season for him. This match-up is just bad for him, especially with no other great offensive talent to shift focus away from him and give him space to work. If you’re going to run the offense through Aldridge in the post, you need at least 3 other shooters out there on the floor. In the starting line-up, there are only two other shooters out there, making it too easy for the Warriors to shut down the post.

If you’re an astute observer, you’ve already seen one big issue here. If you need shooters on the floor with Aldridge, but you can’t start Patty against this lineup, where do you go?

The honest answer: I don’t know. This is where we start to reach the limits of the Spurs lineup. I think it’s obvious that Rudy Gay needs to start, as he was perhaps the best Spurs player on the floor in this game (him or Manu Ginobili, because of course our best player would be a 40-year-old).

Beyond that, I don’t have a good answer. Davis Bertans might be effective, and could match the Warriors “big” lineup with only one actual big player. But to throw Bertans out there now seems untenable. You could go back to Pau Gasol. He struggles against the Warriors, the Warriors tend to crush our two-big traditional lineups, and he struggled in Game 1. But at least he can shoot the 3. Bryn Forbes? He’s not much bigger than Patty, and not much of a better shooter. Manu? That might actually be the best answer.

And if the answer to the question is a 40-year-old shooting guard, you’ve probably already lost.

I know there’s a desire to pin this on Coach Pop. He didn’t really seem to adjust, and didn’t seem to prepare the team well. He apparently implemented a new defense with one day of practice.

Plenty of this loss is on him. But, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on the starting lineup issues. By the time he knew the Warriors had changed their starting lineup, he probably still wanted to see how his new wrinkles would play out. The game got away from him early, and maybe he knew this one was lost early. So he stuck with the game plan and took the loss, knowing the team just needs one of these first two.

If we don’t see adjustments in Game 2, though, I think it’s safe to say that the team doesn’t really believe they can win this series. They’ll continue to play hard, of course, and play for each other. But we have enough data to know that it isn’t working. Things need to change.

Game 2 is Monday night. Here’s hoping we see a “different” Spurs squad.

Go Spurs Go.