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Warriors Thump Spurs In 2018 Playoff Opener

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.

Spurs Clinch Playoff Berth With Victory Over Kings

Season 51, Game 81
San Antonio 98, Sacramento 85
47-34, 6th in the West

In October, if you’d told me that all the Spurs needed to do to secure a playoff berth was beat the Kings at home, I’d have shrugged my shoulders and assumed you were talking about some random home game in March.

If you’d then told me that it was actually Game 81 and the win–and the playoffs–were in jeopardy, I would’ve assumed the worst.

And the worst did happen, sports-wise. The Spurs lost their best player (for all intents and purposes) for the whole season. A roster built around the supreme talents of one player suddenly became a collection of unproven role players, past-their-prime veterans, and one star with a game built around an antiquated mode of playing.

It was a tough season by Spurs’ fans standards, and Monday’s win over the Kings kind of encapsulates all of it. The team was really unable to generate any chemistry or momentum until the fourth quarter, and had to be bailed out by their 40-year-old “star” who still probably plays with more passion than any other player on the team.

The win didn’t necessarily inspire any confidence, but it wasn’t a nail-biter. It was fine. This team is fine. This season was fine.

“Fine” is a tough sell to us spoiled Spurs’ followers.

LaMarcus Aldridge had a rare game in which he struggled. Luckily Rudy Gay, Manu Ginobili, and Bryn Forbes helped to pick up the scoring slack. The team picked up the defense in the second half, holding the Kings to an anemic 35 points in the final 24 minutes. What finally secured the win, though, was the team deciding to play some offense, exploding for 38 in the fourth quarter, after managing  60 in the preceding three.

The game secured the team’s passage to it’s unprecedented 21st straight playoffs. We shouldn’t take that for granted, but we will. The team’s consistency for decades is remarkable, and only helps to underscore how unrecognizable a good (or, as others might say, “fine”) season is to us. This is/was a good season. To listen to us talk about it, you’d believe otherwise.

Now we wait to find out the team’s final spot in the Western Conference hierarchy, with any seed from 4 to 8 possible. If the team beats New Orleans on the final day of the season, I believe they can do no worse than 6th. If they lose, I believe they can do no better than 7.

We won’t know for certain until the final buzzer sounds late Wednesday night. The last time the Spurs closed the season in New Orleans, it ended in disappointment and presaged an early playoff exit. Here’s hoping for a better result this close of season.

Go Spurs Go.

Spurs One Win Closer to Clinching

Season 51, Game 80
San Antonio 116, Portland 105
46-34, 6th in the West

If Saturday night’s matchup versus the visiting Portland Trail Blazers felt like a playoff game to you, you’re not alone. San Antonio came into the game needing two wins in their final three contests to secure a 21st consecutive trip to the playoffs.  The team has been in win-or-go-home mode since, what, early March?

Another reason this much-need victory felt like a playoff game: The Spurs could very well end up meeting Portland in the first round of the playoffs next weekend. Portland currently holds the 3 seed, while San Antonio sits in 6th. Continue reading

A Tale of Two Teams

Season 51, Game 78
San Antonio 110, Los Angeles Clippers 113
45-33, 4th in the West

Season 51, Game 79
San Antonio 112, Los Angeles Lakers 122
45-34, 5th in the West

Lost in the chaos of a drama-filled season – in which the leading headline has mostly been about a guy who isn’t even playing basketball right now – is a tale of two teams.

One team, plays in San Antonio, wears a color combination of black, silver and white, and more importantly, carries a sense of pride and responsibility. This team is good at basketball and while they may not be the best team in franchise history, is at least fun to watch. At their best, they are probably good enough to be the 3 seed in the Western Conference. In reality, they are a good basketball team.

The other team mirrors the first team in some aspects. You can see the resemblance, such as the same color combination of the jerseys, but the differences are also glaringly obvious. Completely removed from the confines of a familiar ATT Center, they wish to be nestled closely by a supportive fan base and comforted by some good home cookin’. This “other” team plays in the opponent’s home arena. This team is a bad basketball team.

Continue reading

Spurs Dismantle Rockets on Easter Day

Season 51, Game 77
San Antonio 100, Houston 83
45-32, 4th in the West

During this game there was a lot of discussion between Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jason and Mike Breen about the consistent excellence of the San Antonio Spurs and how good they’ve played this season despite injuries.

Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Rudy Gay, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green have missed 68, 27, 25, 16 and 12 games, respectively. Only Patty Mills has played in all 77.

It is truly astonishing, then, that the Spurs are a playoff team in the Western Conference, let alone that they have the 4th seed and are able to beat what is arguably the best team in the league.

Would this game have turned out differently if Chris Paul had played for Houston? Maybe. Probably.

The Spurs took the lead with 4 minutes left in the 1st quarter and never looked back. And yet, this game didn’t feel wrapped up until late in the 4th quarter.

I kept waiting for James Harden to go on a scoring spree, but he never did. He ended up with a ho-hum 25 points on 8-of-19 shooting.

The Spurs were led, as always, by LaMarcus Aldridge, who finished with 23 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocks.

Rudy Gay scored 21 points and came through with some big moments when San Antonio needed them, including this block on Eric Gordon followed by an emphatic dunk on the opposite end:

After failing to finish a few fast break layup opportunities, and getting some advice from Coach Pop to pull up shoot the 3-ball, Patty Mills had a big fourth quarter, nailing 3-of-6 three pointers and finishing with 14 points.

With just five games left to play, it’s unlikely the Spurs will win five straight to finish with 50 wins for their 19th consecutive season.

They’d have to win against the Clippers and Lakers on the road, against the Trailblazers and Kings at home, then against the Pelicans on the road.

Don’t hold your breath, but don’t give up faith.

If last night’s game showed us anything it’s that the Spurs are a still a good team and could give anyone a run in the first round of the playoffs.

Anything can happen.

The Spurs head to Los Angeles for Tuesday and Wednesday night games at Staples. Neither LA team will make the playoffs this year, so both teams will be playing for pride, if anything. Should be fun.

Go Spurs Go.

Photo credit: Darren Abate / Associated Press

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