10:30 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Golden State -7.5
A possible postseason preview takes place tonight at ORACLE Arena as the Golden State Warriors host the defending NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs, yet as of this moment it’s difficult to ascertain just who will be taking part in this contest. One of the reasons for concern is that the Spurs (3-3), and namely Gregg Popovich, are likely to rest many of his players tonight, for it is the second night of a back-to-back. The man who once sat his entire Starting Five for a primetime matchup with the Miami Heat is at it again folks, for just last Thursday, Popovich sat both Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili against the Houston Rockets the night after a hard-fought win over the Atlanta Hawks. The Champs went on to lose by seventeen points that night, and with Monday Night’s 89-85 victory at the Clippers still fresh in their minds, the precedent is set for the five-time Champion Head Coach to once again rest his aging veterans. After all, Duncan (38) and Ginobili (37) aren’t Spring Chickens anymore. However, they looked hardly old against the Clippers, whom they outscored 25-15, ending the game on a 14-3 run against one of the favorites in the Western Conference. Duncan logged 35:38 minutes of action, compiling eighteen points on 6-of-14 shooting from the field (42.9%), eleven rebounds, three assists, and a block, while Ginobili played 24:45 minutes off the bench, with ten points on 4-of-8 shooting from the field (50.0%), four rebounds, three assists, and a block of his own. Tony Parker, the third part of their veteran Big Three, scored thirteen points on a poor 3-of-13 shooting from the field (23.1%), but netted seven of his nine free-throws (77.8%), with two rebounds, five assists, and a steal. In fact, that win was of great historical significance for the triumvirate, who earned their 500th career victory together, second in NBA History, leaving them just forty games behind the Boston Celtics’ famed trio of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish (540).
However, based off last night’s win and to a larger extent last year’s NBA Finals, that Big Three has become a Big Four on the strength of Kawhi Leonard, who has flourished this season since returning from a bout with Pink Eye (of which he still isn’t completely over yet) caused him to miss the end of the Preseason and the Regular Season Opener. The 23-year old was stellar against the Clippers, leading the Spurs with 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting from the field (55.6%), with ten rebounds, three assists, three steals, and a block, all the while playing some tremendous defense against one of the better offensive teams in the league. Leonard was a big reason why the visitors were able to relegate the hosts to just 44.6% shooting, including 5-of-22 from three (22.7%), and harassed them into fifteen turnovers. There is no question he will be playing tonight, but it does remain a legitimate mystery as to who will be joining him; as we mentioned earlier, Popovich is prone to resting Duncan and Ginobili on the second night of a back-to-back, but he may not have that luxury given the status of a number of other players in his rotation. Marco Belinelli (groin), Patty Mills (shoulder), and Tiago Splitter (calf) are all expected to miss tonight’s contest, leaving the deepest team in the NBA without a but short on healthy bodies. So will Popovich really be bold enough to cut his rotation in half by sitting a pair of his grizzled veterans? We wouldn’t put it past him, but at some point this team is going to have to come together and build the vaunted chemistry that has led to consecutive NBA Finals appearances. Last season, San Antonio averaged 105.4 points (6th overall) on 48.6% shooting from the field (2nd overall), including 51.7% from within the arc (4th overall) and 39.7% from beyond it (1st overall), along with a league-leading 25.2 assists, while ranking second overall in effective field goal percentage (53.7%), but this season have seen those numbers decline to 92.2 points (27th overall) on 42.6% shooting from the field (27th overall), including 47.8% from within the arc (17th overall) and 28.3% from beyond it (29th overall), along with 20.0 assists (20th overall), and an effective field goal percentage of 46.4% (27th overall). So just how does a team go from being one of the top offensive teams in the NBA to one of the worst despite returning nine players from the previous campaign? It all comes back to chemistry, folks; with the aforementioned injuries this early in the season, the Spurs’ depth just isn’t there, meaning more minutes for some players who just aren’t accustomed to playing as much. Indeed, it’s equal parts Quality and Quantity in San Antonio, but the second half of that equation just hasn’t been there thus far.
Meanwhile, the league’s longest-tenured Head Coach meets one of it’s youngest, as Popovich squares off with his former charge Steve Kerr, who is making his first journey into coaching as the Warriors’ (5-1) skipper. Kerr, who since retiring has spent the majority of his post-playing career in Television along with a brief stint as the Phoenix Suns’ General Manager (2007-2010), and spent four seasons in San Antonio where he helped the Spurs to win a pair of NBA Titles (1998-1999 and 2002-2003). Many in the basketball community shook their heads when Golden State fired Mark Jackson after leading this team to a 51-31 record, the franchise’s best since the 1991-1992 campaign, yet a premature postseason demise as the Warriors fell in seven games to the Clippers in the First Round of the Playoffs. The sense from the organization was that Jackson, who had vastly improved the team on the defensive of the ball, had simply reached his ceiling as the Head Coach. And that’s where Kerr comes in; despite possessing no previous coaching experience, Kerr knows the game from his time as a player and executive, and after learning at the feet of Popovich and Phil Jackson, has a wealth of knowledge that could prove beneficial to such a young team with this much untapped potential. And thus far, the early returns have been promising; through six games, the Warriors are averaging 105.2 points (3rd overall) on 49.0% shooting (1st overall), including 53.3% from inside the arc (2nd overall) and 39.7% from beyond it (4th overall), along with 23.3 assists (4th overall) and a league-leading 55.2% effective field goal percentage. The key to their success on the offensive end of the court is the sheer pace with which they’ve played at; Kerr has urged them to push the tempo at every opportunity, averaging a healthy 101.0 possessions per 48 minutes, the most of any team in the NBA.
That philosophy has reflected in the standings, as the Warriors raced out to a 5-0 record, their best start in twenty-one years. In those five victories, Kerr’s charges won by a whopping margin of 14.8 points per game, of which included a seventeen-point drubbing of the Los Angeles Clippers last Wednesday, and an eleven-point win over the Houston Rockets, handing them their first loss this term. When this team is clicking offensively, they’re scary good; in those first five games, Golden State has averaged 107.2 points on 49.3% shooting from the field, including 38.5% from three, 44.2 rebounds, 24.8 assists, and 10.2 steals. However, they experienced their first loss Sunday Night at Phoenix in a 107-95 defeat, in which they were trampled 36-16 in the Fourth Quarter. That night, many of those strengths betrayed them; despite shooting a solid 47.8% from the field, including 11-of-24 from downtown (45.8%), Golden State were bested 39-33 on the glass, and managed to dish out just sixteen assists, all the while committing twenty-six fouls, which led to Phoenix draining 27-of-33 from the free-throw line, nine more than the visitors. Granted, Kerr and Co. were without the services of both Klay Thompson (hand) and David Lee (hamstring), a pair of starters who account for 29.8 points. In fact, Thompson, who was recently inked to a four-year contract extension last month worth $68.9 million, has flourished under Kerr , ranking seventh in the league in scoring (23.8 points). Indeed his presence draws defenses away from Stephen Curry, the young sharp-shooting Point Guard who led the league in both three-point field goals and three-point field goal attempts in each of the last two seasons. This season, Curry leads the NBA in scoring (27.7 points), while posting career-highs in rebounds (6.3) and steals (3.5). He’s also been far more aggressive of late, averaging more field goal attempts (18.5), three-point field goal attempts (8.2), and free-throw attempts (6.2) than at any other point in his young six-year career. However, there is still room for improvement, particularly in regards to taking care of the ball, which has been a lingering problem for this team since Jackson was in charge. Curry is also committing a career-worst 4.8 turnovers per game, with the Warriors as a whole ranking next-to-last in the NBA with 22.5 turnovers, including the worst Turnover Percentage in the league, coughing up the rock on a ridiculous 20.3% of their possessions. Case in point, in the loss at Phoenix, they turned it over twenty-six times, the most they’ve totaled in a game this year. Part of the issue is the frenetic pace they’ve played at, but it’s mostly discipline, which clearly looks to be Kerr’s biggest challenge this season.