Can Kawhi Leonard, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs prevent the red-hot Warriors from making a third straight trip to the NBA Finals?
It doesn’t always work out due to injuries, bad luck or terrible matchups but, in the case of this year’s Western Conference Finals, we can certainly say that the two best teams in the regular season are meeting in the postseason for the right to move on to the NBA Finals. Even better for basketball fans across the world, it also presents us the rare opportunity to see that elusive meeting we’ve been wanting in the conference finals as the Golden State Warriors finally take on the San Antonio Spurs.
Unfortunately that battle of Western Conference titans doesn’t quite have the same shine it did when it was a possibility a few weeks ago. The Spurs not only lost Tony Parker for the rest of the year during their series with Rockets, but MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard also will certainly be less than 100 percent the rest of the way with an ankle injury. The Warriors are not unscathed either, with Kevin Durant still susceptible to having that calf strain flare up at inopportune times and head coach Steve Kerr unlikely to be found on the sidelines as he continues to deal with back issues.
Still, this is the matchup everybody wanted to see in the West and it should be a delight to anybody who loves crisp ball movement and excellent two-way play. Each franchise is intimately familiar with each other and probably relishes the fact that the road to the Finals will go through Oakland and San Antonio just like many predicted back when the two first met in the season opener. How will it all play out in the end? We’ll find out soon enough as the conference powerhouses go at each other in this series.
No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 2 San Antonio Spurs (61-21)
Game 1 - Sunday, May 14, 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
Game 2 - Tuesday, May 16, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 3 - Saturday, May 20, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 4 - Monday, May 22, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 5 (if necessary) - Wednesday, May 24, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 6 (if necessary) - Friday, May 26, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 7 (if necessary) - Sunday, May 28, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Note: Games 1, 2, 5, 7 will be played at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., while Games 3, 4, 6 will take place at AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas
Keys for San Antonio
Health will be at the forefront of everybody’s minds in San Antonio as they look to see how well Kawhi Leonard’s ankle will be. While the extra rest afforded to him in skipping Game 6 of the Rockets series will likely help early on against the Warriors, it’s not an injury that lends itself to a quick recovery and the grind of running around to stop Golden State isn’t a walk in the park to say the least. Leonard likely gets first crack at defending Kevin Durant in the biggest one-on-one matchup of the conference finals so the Spurs have to hope the ankle is more of a nuisance for their MVP candidate than a real issue each game.
Outside of that battle, Gregg Popovich will no doubt be looking to maximize the advantage his team has down in the post. LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol both give San Antonio a notable presence in the paint and need to come up with big-time performances if they want to make this series interesting. Aldridge seemed to alternate between hot and cold during the six-game win over Houston so getting consistent play out of him will be key if the Spurs are to make a dint in the pairing of Zaza Pachulia and Draymond Green. Don’t discount the play of Jonathon Simmons on the wing on both ends of the court as well given the number of scoring options on the opposite bench.
Keys for Golden State
When the Warriors assembled their “super team” over the summer, many thought they would be borderline unstoppable on their march to another NBA title. That notion was dismissed somewhat right off the back by the Spurs, who put a nearly 30-point whopping on the defending Western Conference champions in the season opener. The two teams met twice more during the regular season but that thrashing is bound to be stuck in the minds of every Golden State player when they take the court for this series. In short, expect a focused team that will do much more than just show up and play basketball over the course of the next four to seven games.
That said, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and the rest of the bunch are clearly the more talented squad in this meeting and need to continue doing what they’ve been doing the past three seasons in order to advance. That means hitting shots in transition, defending in the paint as well as the three-point line and making sure that the bench is able to help contribute on both ends of the court. Don’t overlook the coaching aspect for Golden State though, as Steve Kerr likely won’t be back around the team and former Spurs assistant Mike Brown will be left coming up with the in-game adjustments needed to close games out and take control of the series. The Warriors don’t have to be perfect in order to beat the Spurs but they do need to bring their A-games in order to get past their rivals from the great state of Texas.
The Warriors’ rise into the NBA’s best team the past three seasons has come at the expense of many of their Western Conference rivals but the one franchise that has stuck around to make things interesting with them is the veteran group down in San Antonio. While we’ve missed out on chances to see the two teams meet in the postseason each of the past two years, the long-awaited battle is finally here for all to see.
As nice as it would be to see both sides fully healthy and really go toe-to-toe for the right to play for another NBA crown, that’s sadly not the case as this series is set to get underway. Stars in each starting lineup are banged up and Golden State head coach Steve Kerr likely won’t be around to go up against his former mentor and the league’s coaching dean in Gregg Popovich. We should still get a thrilling series that could be more competitive than the Eastern Conference counterpart will be but make no mistake, the top seed in the league will be heavily favored in this one for a reason.
If Kawhi Leonard is fully healthy and playing to his potential on both ends of the court, it’s certainly possible that San Antonio surprises everybody and makes a run at winning the series or at least make things interesting. Given the way Golden State has been playing ever since the postseason has arrived however, makes that unlikely and it seems like only a matter of time before they’re on their way to a third straight NBA Finals appearance against Cleveland.
Prediction: Warriors in five
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)