The Golden State Warriors made the San Antonio Spurs look silly Monday night. There’s no way around it. There was a legitimate debate about which team was better heading into the contest, and the Warriors have closed that debate for the time being.
But it is possible to overstate what happened in the 30-point blowout.
As the game was unfolding, the takes on Twitter got hotter and hotter. You saw everything from people claiming former NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is overrated and not clutch, that LaMarcus Aldridge was a bad signing for San Antonio and (my personal favorite) that the Spurs have no chance against the Warriors in a seven-game series.
You’re better than that, NBA fans, especially on that final take. Since when did one regular-season game in January between two juggernauts close the book on us learning anything more about the teams, especially when the game didn’t even include the losing team’s third-best player, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and one of the most cerebral players in the history of the sport?
If you’ve paid attention to recent NBA history, particularly with both of these teams, you should know that things can happen in one game (and even a few games) that can be extremely misleading.
We’ll start with the Warriors.
Last April, Golden State was 63-13 and playing at an extremely high level, sporting a 12-game winning streak. A beast was also emerging in San Antonio, with the finally-healthy Spurs going 16-3 over a 19-game stretch and blowing out most of their competition.
The two teams met in the Alamo City April 5 in a much-hyped affair. Led by Leonard, the Spurs killed the Warriors’ defense inside and stifled their perimeter offensive attack, taking a 57-34 lead late in the first half and widening the gap to 28 in the fourth quarter before Golden State did some cosmetic work to make the final deficit 15 points.
Were the Warriors in serious trouble after that embarrassing loss? Was San Antonio going to rip them apart if they met in the playoffs? Of course not, although many people, Spurs and non-Spurs fans alike, started to believe it because of that one game.
As we all know, the Warriors ended up winning the championship, and the Spurs bowed out in the first round.
About a month after the Spurs’ regular-season blowout of the Warriors, Golden State faced the challenge of a physical Grizzlies squad in the second round of the playoffs. In Games 2 and 3, Memphis had their opponent frazzled. The Warriors’ offensive flow was completely off, and the Grizzlies had a 2-1 lead. Many credible pundits thought Memphis had a great shot to pull off the upset.
As it turns out, though, teams as good as the Warriors are capable of flipping the script. Golden State won the final three contests of the series by an average of nearly 17 points per game. Games 2 and 3 became a mere footnote in their championship run.
Just a couple of Saturdays ago, the Warriors lost to the Pistons by 18 points after trailing by as many as 25 in the fourth quarter. We all know Detroit is far inferior to Golden State; it was just a bad game for the defending champs.
But since Monday’s tilt between Golden State and San Antonio was so hyped, fans weren’t allowed to acknowledge that the Spurs merely had a bad game. It had to mean everything about the teams.
And now, we’ll focus on a couple of San Antonio examples.
The 2013 NBA Finals was an epic seven-game series that featured two excellent, evenly-matched teams, the Spurs and the Big-Three led Heat.
And yet, in Game 3, San Antonio waxed Miami 113-77 take a 2-1 series lead. That 36-point margin was six points more than what the Warriors beat the Spurs by Monday. It would’ve been really easy to pick the Spurs to continue their excellent play and win the championship.
Guess what? The Heat won three of the next four games and took the series. Even a snapshot of one Finals game is not enough to make sweeping judgments on a matchup.
The following season, the Spurs consistently had trouble keeping pace with the NBA’s elite. At the end of January 2014, San Antonio was 33-13 but had compiled a 1-11 record against the rest of the top seven teams record-wise (the Thunder, Pacers, Trail Blazers, Heat, Clippers and Rockets).
Maybe the Spurs weren’t going to have the firepower to deal consistently with the elite teams in the postseason, people wondered.
Of course, San Antonio went on to seize the title pretty convincingly, winning series against three of the teams it had struggled against in the regular season (Portland, Oklahoma City and Miami) by a combined record of 12-4 and a point differential of plus-12.6.
The point of all of this, of course, is that small sample sizes aren’t as reliable as a lot of us think they are in the moment. Using one or two consecutive games (or even several isolated ones) to determine a team’s ability to beat another team in a best-of-seven playoff series is foolish.
What did I glean from the Warriors-Spurs game Monday? Certainly not that San Antonio is a lock to lose if the two teams meet in the playoffs. But rather that the Spurs need to figure some things out if they are to win. At 38-7, and still with the best coach and point differential in the league, this San Antonio team shouldn’t be counted out against anyone yet.
The Stephen Curry-Draymond Green pick-and-roll caused plenty of trouble for the Spurs, as did San Antonio’s 26 turnovers. Several of the miscues with the ball weren’t even forced and wouldn’t have happened on any other night, regardless of the opponent. Fifteen of those miscues were live-ball turnovers, which ignited the Warriors’ quick-developing transition offense and was a huge momentum swinger in Golden State’s favor.
Simply cutting down on unforced errors is one way to change the outcome next time the teams meet. And having Tim Duncan back from injury, despite his slow feet, should provide much-needed rim protection in the half court and allow the perimeter defenders to play their marks a little bit differently because of that.
The Warriors are the team to beat right now. But San Antonio is not doomed because of one poor two-hour showing.