The Warriors dictate style of play, which necessitates adjustment. This is known.
Defensively, their scheme is devised around taking high percentage shots away, as most teams attempt, but the difference is they can actually execute. Starting in transition, they have a multitude of 6’6”-6’8” versatile two-way players who can switch on the fly in transition without having to scramble to different assignments giving up high percentage transition looks while at the same time not affording easy mismatches in the post. This switching carries over into the half-court setting on floppy sets to take away threes without giving much up in the post and also in pick and roll where they erase the advantage most teams give up allowing dribble penetration in “zone” PNR or hedging (inducing 4 on 3s) schemes by instead switching. There are lineup/player exceptions: the Warriors almost never switch Curry onto post guys or Bogut onto speedy lead ball-handlers, but the overall approach remains true.
This dictates very specifically the ways in which you can exploit them defensively. When Bogut is in, you can usually attack the space he affords in PNR with him dropping back. Outside of that, the impact of floppy sets/screening actions are mitigated with the switching, as is typically any non-Bogut PNR (Curry defends his ass off switching 1-3).
This leaves four main avenues you have to beat the Warriors’ defense: 1) conventional PNR (either with Bogut in and defending the screener or in some cases with Curry not switching) 2) isolation 3) post-ups and 4) offensive rebounds, or mostly the “non-analytical” approach. This is a problem when you don’t have a LeBron-level talent to do these things, which is what the Warriors are counting on by design.
Offensively, the Warriors are schematically even more deadly, possessing the deadliest offensive player arguably of all-time who dictates scheme and the deadliest lineup (literally) that dictates terms of the personnel you play. This is all beaten into submission repeatedly, but it’s necessary to arrive at the points below. The Warriors are in the drivers seat here. You can’t replicate Steph or Draymond, you can’t replicate their plethora of high IQ two-way versatile playmakers, and you absolutely have to beat them in the ways that they allow. You can’t do what they do or beat them at their own game. It must be done in a very specific way.
Why the Spurs and Not the Thunder
There are two legitimate arguments for believing the Thunder have a better chance than the Spurs at beating the Dubs: 1) Kevin Durant and 2) Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Durant is really the only player in the league the Warriors have no defensive answer for and whose presence doesn’t have a tradeoff on the other end of the floor (you can MAYBE throw Towns in here, but even guys like Boogie have that aforementioned defending in space trade-off). He’s too quick/long for Dray and too big for Iggy. Kawhi is really the only player in the league who stands a chance on Durant individually. This affords the Thunder a prohibitive advantage on the Spurs in their ability to consistently create offense in the half-court. The second is throwing the Westbrook element in, especially in transition. OKC can really make the Warriors pay in transition by turning live ball TOs into points with Westbrook and Durant in ways the Spurs can’t. Outside of having 2 of the 5 best individual players and shot-creators in the league, a requisite to beating the Dubs (in terms of beating 1 v 1 matchups), it’s hard to generate pro-Thunder arguments here. They simply do not have the overall consistent defensive discipline to beat the Warriors 4 out of 7. This goes way overlooked. As Westbrook’s closing defense in game 2 against Dallas illuminated, there is a substantial difference between athleticism and actual fundamental defense. The Spurs are an all-time level defense. OKC was a mere 12th in defensive efficiency this season. Furthermore, the OKC roster is rich in bigs but have a shortage of two-way wings. It’s almost impossible to beat the Warriors if they know they don’t have to guard someone, which in the case of Roberson, Waiters (despite shooting well on spot-ups this year I’m still not sold), Singler ETC is exactly what will happen. The “OKC has the athletes and team speed to keep up with the Warriors” narrative is a lazy one. So much more goes into this calculus.
That being said, I’d rank the Thunder only behind the Spurs odds wise in their ability to beat the Dubs, and there is a chance they knock off San Antonio in round 2, thus references to OKC will be sprinkled in throughout the following.
I. 10 Overall Keys to the Series for San Antonio & Why They Are Fit to Execute
1.Slow the Pace Down
These first two points go in concert and are fairly obvious. The Warriors are a rare breed who can play at a supreme offensive pace but slow the pace down defensively. It’s almost impossible to replicate that. Their shot value in transition/early offense with either Curry on drags and shooters running for threes or Draymond pushing the ball up causing chaos is too high. The Cavs had the right strategy in the Finals last year slowing the game down and hammering LeBron in the post, mitigating turnovers and easy baskets via run-outs. I don’t have the possession stats but the two games played in San Antonio seemed to be played at a slower pace than both games in Oakland.
The Spurs actually don’t play fast (a misconception: they finished 25th in pace this year): they just push the ball up quickly to maximize half-court opportunity to obtain the best shot moving the ball. The Spurs are excellent at controlling tempo with good decision-making, and if anyone can dictate pace against the Warriors (the Spurs have already shown the ability to do so twice), it’s San Antonio.
2.Reduce Live Ball Turnovers
Pretty much verbatim point 1: you can’t survive live ball turnovers against virtually any team, but especially vs. the Warriors’ via their transition shot quality.
3.Crash the Offensive Glass/Get Back in Transition D
The Warriors have 3 chinks in their armor: 1) defensive rebounding, 2) turnovers and 3) the offense dies sometimes without Curry. As for the first, this point is almost specific to the Spurs, who are better than basically anyone at juggling this usual trade-off. San Antonio had 13 offensive rebounds in the first half of game 4 between these two teams, and while that OREB Rate is not replicable, this is a key element to beating the Warriors. Oklahoma City can replicate the OREB component with Kanter especially, but they undergo an immense tradeoff on the opposite side of the court in having to put Kanter often times defensively in space. San Antonio has shown the ability to manage in both respects.
4.Push Selectively in Transition
As for the second weakness above, the Warriors can get turnover happy, and it’s crucial to convert those opportunities into easy baskets. This is especially true for the Spurs who struggle to score against the Warriors’ set defense. The Spurs don’t have the athletes that OKC does obviously, but they have the smarts to determine opportune times to push in transition.
5.Maximize Offensive Value in the Minutes Curry Sits
Rounding out the third point, the Warriors become substantially easier to guard without Steph as the engine, which allows more offense-first lineups to be implemented. Steph usually plays through the first and third quarters (with Draymond) and then sits at the beginning of the second/fourth, which makes substitution patterns dicey (compounded by Draymond playing/sitting at the same time). When Steph goes out of the game instead of buying minutes of rest for guys like Aldridge and Kawhi, I’d have at least one of those guys on the court along with Mills/Parker (probably not both assuming Livingston is out there to pray on one in the post) and Manu. It’s like in the series against LAC last year: you have to win those LAC bench minutes handedly, and that stands equally true for Steph bench minutes. I believe the Warriors actually outscored the Spurs by 5 at the beginning of the fourth quarter of the most recent matchup with Steph sitting. That can’t happen. Those minutes have to go substantially in San Antonio’s favor over the course of the series.
6.Put Kawhi on Green for the Most Part
The Spurs will give the Warriors different looks, especially on Steph, with Parker, Green and Kawhi all likely to see time there. The Warriors’ best offensive weapon in the half-court to get a good shot is the 1/4 or 1/5 PNR with Steph and Dray (the latter in the Death Lineup). Mitigating that by putting Kawhi on Dray to switch maximizes the probability of cutting the head off the snake of Golden State’s go-to weapon.
7.Trap All Non-Draymond PNRs With Steph as the Ball-Handler
This is something we are starting to see from more teams (see LAC’s PNR coverage on Dame & Cleveland on R-Jax), and it makes total sense. You can’t give Draymond outright 4 on 3s, especially with no rim protection. It’s basically an automatic corner 3 or easy shot at the basket with Dray’s insane playmaking on the move (he used to settle for bad floaters at times but he’s really refined his approach). This doesn’t hold true for other Warriors though. Bogut is a fantastic passer but he’s not used to handling the ball and making decisions on the move, nor does he have the speed or explosion to really thrive if you force him to be a scorer. The logical avenue in that PNR situation would be to trap Curry, force the pass to Bogut and have the 3 help defenders flinch at Bogut and test his shot-making (ideally a floater) or trick him into a poor pass on the move. The same logic stands true for Barnes/Iggy as the roll men, but the Warriors usually don’t headhunt mismatches with this route because having Draymond not involved in the PNR makes it easier to help off him (and they never do with both Green and Bogut on the court because then you can help off both).
The Spurs tried just chasing Curry off the three-point line switching guys like Aldridge onto him, and that tactic worked in game 2. However, I noted at the time it wasn’t sustainable: Curry is simply too good of a finisher now, even in the intermediate game, to give him an open driving lane. Predictably, he killed that coverage in games 3 and 4.
8.Attack Bogut in PNR
This is one of the few “easy” (it’s not really) areas, at least in theory, to attack the Warriors based mostly on scheme. The Warriors almost never switch PNR with Bogut when it includes a capable ball-handler (or when Steph is involved defending the ball if there will be a sizable mismatch), and instead typically drop Bogut back in a “zone up” situation. This affords the ball-handler space to enter the midrange area when Steph (or another defender) trails going over (usually happens) with Bogut situated farther back defending the rim. The Jazz basically played Bogut off the court in their most recent outing, alternating between Hayward and Hood running the 2/5 or 3/5 PNR and creating in that space. Both guys are taller than Parker or Manu (and more polished scorers), which helps shooting over Bogut’s flinching act, but there is still potential here. Parker has that patented floater that he can get off over Bogut, and Manu is super crafty changing speeds to bait Bogut into fouls. This is the most clear-cut way to score over the Dubs starters, which is by design. Few centers can shoot a far more valuable pick and pop 3, and the Dubs are just playing the percentages in trying to induce midrange jumpers. With a guy like Duncan whose shooting has fallen off, that is an ideal strategy if Bogut can challenge Parker and Manu. It becomes a better option with Aldridge as the screener. The Warriors were 3rd worst in the league this year defending the roll man in PNR, so there is potential here especially with Aldridge popping out into jumpers off pocket passes.
9.Attack the Warriors in Side PNR if They ICE
The Spurs had some success opening the third quarter of Game 4 between the two teams attacking the Warriors’ side PNR coverage with Bogut dropping down and Aldridge popping for shots. With Bogut in the Dubs again don’t switch much in PNR, which leaves exploitable pocket pass opportunities.
10.Minimize Warriors Second Chance Points/OREB 3s
You can’t give the Warriors second bites at the apple, especially when those are often immediate kick-outs to open shooters for threes. The Spurs finished 3rd in the league this year in defensive rebounding rate which bodes well for them limiting Golden State’s second-chance scoring opportunities.
Proposed Rotation: Parker, Green, Kawhi, Diaw, Aldridge, Duncan, Mills, Manu, Simmons (very selectively Boban)
The Duncan Dilemma
I do think that Duncan is playable in this series in certain situations matchup wise (especially when Steph is off the floor). It’s more so a matter of if the Spurs are optimizing every second on the floor if he does play considerable minutes. Duncan’s shooting has regressed this year, so he’s really not a threat on offense outside of mismatches in the post or putbacks occasionally:
With Bogut checking Duncan to start games the Spurs can run a 1/5 PNR to get Duncan a pocket pass pull-up jumper basically at will. The Dubs want that. The issue is do the Spurs? Aldridge is the far better option there at the center spot as a shooter:
Defensively, Duncan can check Bogut but if the Spurs aren’t going to trap Curry or Klay with Duncan guarding Bogut (the screener) it’s pretty untenable. Duncan can’t switch onto Curry or Klay in dribble handoffs and he can’t sag off and allow either to walk into an open jumper. Thus, from a macro-level by Bogut pulling Duncan out of the low post, negating his one great contribution in protecting the rim, it lessens Duncan’s positive impact potential. He can be salvaged on D with traps involving Curry or Klay on the perimeter, but again, the offensive trade-off might be too large for the Spurs to stomach. Duncan is a far better option with Steph out and Ezeli in, where he can afford to sag off more and protect the rim without Curry exposure. He might start the series with the starters, but will likely be relegated to the bench depending on if the Spurs can formulate enough offense. He has absolutely no chance against the Death Lineup.
Cut Anderson, Martin and West Out of the Rotation
Kyle Anderson & Kevin Martin
I don’t think Anderson or Martin serve any functional purpose against the Warriors (and absolutely none against the Death Lineup specifically). Neither player can keep up with Klay/Iggy/Steph (on rare switches) and Barnes can even torch both, as evidenced against Anderson in game #4 this year. Anderson lost Steph on switches via floppy sets at least twice in their most recent outing, as he just does not possess the speed or athleticism to track these guys despite decent defensive positioning. Anderson can move the ball on offense but he’s not a knockdown shooter and doesn’t have the athleticism/creation to win 1 v 1 matchups. Martin fails the same way defensively (an even bigger minus there) and his offense, while conceptually good as he can make open shots and draw fouls, isn’t worth the defensive trade-off.
West also isn’t really playable against the Warriors. He can’t move laterally/defend in PNR, can’t space the floor outside of 15-18 foot midrange jumpers, and doesn’t protect the rim. Thus, he’s not going to play the 5 over superior options (Duncan can still defend the rim, Boban is a terror on the O Glass and obviously Diaw/Aldridge are better options there), and you want more playmaking on the court at the 4 spot.
The Simmons Argument
Simmons is the potentially unexpected lineup inclusion here, and I absolutely think he should be in the rotation against the Warriors despite the occasional lapse on defense. He’s the most athletic non-Kawhi Spurs perimeter player and can actually win some 1 v 1 matchups on switches. Plus, he has the speed and athleticism to track a Klay type off the ball. I thought he played well in game 2 between these teams, and is a superior option to Anderson/Martin. He’s probably San Antonio’s third best wing defender in this matchup, and you want as many of those guys on the court as possible against the Dubs.
Mills and Boban
Mills is a valuable offensive spark for the Spurs with his shot-making, but I’d be wary of two PG lineups with him and Parker if Livingston is in and if only one of Clark/Barbosa and Iguodala is on the court. You can usually hide one undersized guard against the Warriors’ reserves, but only two in specific instances.
I think the order of playable bigs in this series goes Duncan > Boban > West. Boban’s offensive rebounding and size defending the rim trumps West’s potential contributions, but he’s probably only playable against Ezeli as well when Steph is off the court. In a game this year Kerr quickly countered by inserting Speights into the game with Boban in to capitalize on Boban’s lack of mobility guarding the perimeter. A simple pindown screen for Speights on Boban is an automatic open jumper, but Boban could do enough on the interior crashing the glass and finishing to offset that for stretches.
The conventional and logical starting lineup is probably Parker/Green/Kawhi/Diaw/Aldridge. However, if it can hold up on the glass I’d experiment with swapping Manu for Diaw. Diaw’s advantage posting up is mitigated against Draymond, and by going smaller with more shooting on the court it maximizes spacing for the Parker/Aldridge 1/5 PNR. Rebounding is obviously the issue here.
III.Countering the Death Lineup: Lineup & Match-ups
How the Spurs cope with the Death Lineup is probably the biggest question in a potential WCF matchup. There has been a lot of talk about what bigs to play specifically, as well as the requisite matchups.
This may go against conventional wisdom but I’d actually advocate these 4 guys should be on the court against the DL as the fulcrum (2 bigs): Green, Kawhi, Diaw and Aldridge.
This lineup forces the Warriors’ hand defensively with either the Death Lineup or Death Lineup-Lite in putting Green on Aldridge. Aldridge is just too big and strong in the post for either Barnes or Iggy. The trickle down effect is likely putting Barnes on Diaw and Iggy on Kawhi. The former is the money-maker here. Barnes can’t handle Diaw’s combination of size, strength and skill level in the post. He can manage surprisingly well against bigger post bodies like ZBO for stretches but Diaw’s nimbleness and skill-level combined with his power is a different animal. I normally don’t advocate for post-ups against the Warriors with conventional bigs because the Death Lineup especially is probably the best/most-instinctual lineup in recent memory at doubling/digging down at the right time. But Diaw is so good playmaking out of the post that I trust his decision-making. This is why Diaw to me is the most important player in a series with the Warriors: he can really cause havoc offensively and create quality offense. As for the latter matchup, Iggy really did a number on Bron in the Finals last year, but Kawhi is a bit different. He’s a more efficient shooter and has demonstrated plus strength against Iggy. That one-dribble step-back shot where Kawhi dips his shoulder to create space and fades away is virtually unblockable with the separation he creates. Iggy really thrives with positioning and against the craftier Harden types, but Kawhi just has measurables that are hard to check. The Warriors usually like to play Iggy in a position where they can maximize his help-defense impact because he’s incredible at that, so perhaps they slide Klay down on Kawhi but that’s a really tough cover for Klay.
The takeaway here is that the way you beat the Warriors’ death lineup is slowing the pace down and winning the 1 v 1 matchups. The Dubs will likely switch almost everything (the only time they might not switch is Curry onto Diaw or Aldridge, but they might do that and then pass a big off to someone else), so having multiple guys who can win in isolation, especially near the basket, is a must. The Cavs only had LeBron last year with Kyrie out the majority of the series. The Spurs have more options.
Before getting into the 5th player, the other end of the floor with the aforementioned 4 must be explored. I’d still put Kawhi on Dray to take away the 1/5 PNR with that switch. The easy Aldridge hide is against Death-Lineup-Lite with Livingston in (where most teams hide their bigs), where Aldridge can play a few more steps off and help protect the rim. Against the traditional DL I’d put Aldridge on Barnes. Barnes is less mobile than Iggy, and he hasn’t really shown the ability to beat guys like Favors off the bounce consistently with a lack of elite burst/quickness with the ball. Iggy is more agile and is a better handler, and while you can argue Barnes is the more reliable shooter I’d take Iggy’s big-game shot-making here. Diaw is a bit more nimble than Aldridge in my opinion, so I’d place him on Iggy.
The rest of the matchups are contingent on who the Spurs choose to employ as their 5th guy. Arguments can be made for three guys in my opinion.
1.Manu Ginobili (My Preference)
The Spurs didn’t use this lineup for a single minute this season, but did so against the Grizzlies in game 3. Manu is the best spot-up shooter and playmaker of the group. The Warriors would be least likely to help off him on offense and dig-down to the aforementioned post mismatches. Manu, despite clearly losing a step, is also obviously a quirky playmaker off the dribble and can make plays either in PNR or attacking closeouts. From an offensive spacing vantage point, Manu is the play here.
The issue of course is the speed and athleticism limitations on the other end of the floor. You can make an argument that putting Manu on Curry and Green on Klay is the move if the Dubs are just going to run the 1/5 and Kawhi is going to switch onto Curry anyways. I think that argument is flawed in two ways. The first is in that situation the Warriors would likely just run a clear out iso for Curry, and Manu can’t handle Curry in space at this juncture. The second is if in the event the Warriors still run the 1/5 and the Spurs switch, Dray has Manu in the post (unless there is a quick/clever pass off on the back line), and Dray is a far better post player than he’s given credit for. Danny Green is stronger than Manu in that situation, and would present more strength and athleticism defending Green should the Warriors go that route. Thus, I’d put Manu on Klay and would try to switch some of those floppy actions if possible due to Manu’s lack of tracking speed. Klay has improved as a ball-handler but he’s not great there as an attacker yet. On a switch with say Diaw or Aldridge the move is to chase him off the 3pt line and force him to playmake.
The Spurs also limited Thompson to his worst TS% (45.6) v. any team in the league this year (tied with Boston), and from the eye test it looked like Manu did a respectable job on him.
Overall, the predominant concern for San Antonio is scoring, and I think this lineup accomplishes that best while maintaining defensive integrity.
This might inevitably be more of an offense-defense thing, especially down the stretches of games when afforded the opportunity. Even if Simmons can make the occasional three, the Warriors wont guard him out there, at least to start, and that will inhibit interior spacing with enhanced doubles. I’d still try it at first to see if Simmons can actually make shots and playmake in space. If he can’t, the aforementioned offense/defense approach kicks in. Simmons has the speed and athleticism to chase Klay, and he might even be an option defending Curry. I’d prefer him on the former, where his defensive lapses will be less impactful. He also has the frame for some emergency switching on D, which is valuable against the Warriors’ chaos.
Parker has played Curry better than expected, which would allow Green to trail Klay (the most ideal matchup on Klay outside of Kawhi). The same issue with the switch here discussed above with Manu holds for Parker. Offensively is where I have the most concern. If the Warriors essentially just switch every pick and roll with the Death Lineup, Parker’s value is negated. He’s really not a guy who wins those 1 v 1 iso plays anymore off the bounce. He’s valuable against Bogut with the starting lineup because Parker has some room to manipulate space turning the corner. Against the Death Lineup though, that same circumstance doesn’t exist. He then becomes a liability off the ball as a shooter and someone the Warriors can help off in the post. Again, no team does this better, which knocks Parker down a notch below Manu’s superior shooting and Simmons’ defensive potential.
Overall, for the above reasons I think the Spurs’ best lineup to combat the Death Lineup is Manu/Green/Kawhi/Diaw/Aldridge with Simmons sprinkled in at times to gage effectiveness.
IV. Other Keys to the Series:
1.Danny Green: Green is 5-18 from 3 against the Warriors this year and a lot of those shots have been open attempts. If he doesn’t make a high percentage of his looks from behind the arc the Spurs just don’t have the scoring to win the series.
2.Aldridge v. Draymond (Foul Trouble): Aldridge has to match Draymond’s offensive effectiveness in a series. He wont have the same defensive impact because no one does, but Aldridge has to win a majority of those post isos with his patented shoulder dislodge fadeaways. He got absolutely rocked in the first game the teams played this year, but played well in the two games in San Antonio. Aldridge is one of the three players (with Kawhi and Diaw) who can generate offense in the half-court. He has to have a monster series. Also, as is the case against any prominent series featuring solid interior scorers, Draymond’s foul trouble is something to monitor.
3.Barnes/Iggy/Green Three-Point Shooting: It’s certainly a make or miss league, which extends to all players, but the Warriors are basically unbeatable when these three players make open threes. You have to cede something defending Golden-State, and the emphasis should be trying your best to mitigate Steph in either the 1/4 PNR with Draymond or staying attached to him running off screens. The same goes for Klay on floppy sets and minimizing Draymond’s 4 on 3s. Those are the three guys you absolutely have to try to mitigate in those respective ways. Trying to mitigate those components will free up those aforementioned three shooters, and their shooting success is paramount.