The Golden State Warriors really can’t feel too bad about life on Sunday, as they settle in Minneapolis before Monday night’s game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Sure, the Warriors lost to the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday night. A game that was winnable in the final few minutes slipped away. Just a few accurate jump shots from Stephen Curry could have created a different outcome… but they didn’t fall. No one needs to be told how rare an occurrence that’s been this season.
The Warriors, as columnist John Cannon ably explained here, failed to land what would have been a devastating blow to the Spurs. To that extent, they let something get away from them, and that’s never a particularly satisfying feeling for professional athletes to carry.
Yet, when you’re 62-7, you can enjoy a little bit of perspective: When you have the knowledge that as long as you win two non-San Antonio road games (Minnesota and either Utah or Memphis), you can win 73 by running the table at home, that puts life in a positive light. The Warriors merely need to SPLIT four road games and win out at Oracle Arena to break the 1996 Chicago Bulls’ record.
It’s still very good to be the king.
What the Warriors will also take from Saturday night’s loss in San Antonio is that without Andre Iguodala — remember, the reigning NBA Finals MVP — and two other bigs (Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli), they still pushed the Spurs into the final minute. You can unpack this game and pry it open from so many different angles, but in the end, all Golden State needs to say is that if either Splash Brother shoots at a relatively ordinary level from three-point range (the two were 2-19 combined from long distance), this game ends differently. Curry and Klay Thompson were 11-38 from the field… and they were STILL right there in the final minute, with their depleted roster in San Antonio.
Pardon the Warriors if their failure to win on Saturday won’t haunt them. It shouldn’t.
Yet, in the aftermath of an “almost” moment for Golden State, two small-picture aspects of Saturday’s contest should certainly offer cause for concern. The Warriors might own the big picture after Saturday, but the more granular aspects of this matchup could swing to San Antonio in late May if Golden State’s stars are anything less than their best.
See that man above in blue? Harrison Barnes and Danny Green both had to play Saturday night while their beloved North Carolina Tar Heels played in the NCAA tournament against Providence. Only Green, though, was providential for his team, flying around the court on defense and making important late-game baskets. Barnes has been immersed in a very difficult season which continued in prime time. A 3-of-10 outing for just 8 points was not what the Warrriors needed, given the other limitations on their roster. In a league where one weak cog significantly changes the calculus on the floor, Barnes is at risk of becoming the guy opponents will dare to hit three-pointers. If Barnes misses enough of them — we saw him struggle against Memphis and Cleveland, to the point that those teams were able to take 2-1 leads in playoff series — Golden State could very realistically become vulnerable.
On the other side of this matchup, consider the man in the cover photo for this story. That’s LaMarcus Aldridge of the Spurs.
Remember LMA’s no-show in Oracle Arena on Jan. 25, in the first matchup of the season between these two teams? Aldridge barely made a peep, posting only 5 points and 3 rebounds. He was virtually invisible… unless he drew criticism from pundits for the clumsy things he did on the court that night in Oakland. No Spur needed to raise his game on Saturday more than Aldridge — not only to compensate for Jan. 25, but to announce his presence as the central matchup-changing force the Spurs need him to be if they face the Warriors in late May.
Aldridge certainly delivered when his team needed him to. It wasn’t just the 26-point, 13-rebound performance which should thrill the Spurs. What mattered was that Aldridge hit important late-game shots, a representative example being a left-elbow jumper drained over Barnes to keep Golden State at (the San Francisco) Bay. Aldridge was able to play over the top of Barnes, showing Gregg Popovich that if there’s a pathway to victory for San Antonio in a possible Western Conference Finals series, it’s the use of a big lineup to negate Golden State’s lack of size in the death lineup.
We saw this basic tension in the NBA Finals last year: The Warriors did bust open the series with small ball, but the Cleveland Cavaliers did take a 2-1 lead with their size and length, in the persons of Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson. Warrior-inspired small ball is all the rage in the NBA these days, but the Spurs — at 59-10 on the season — have a pretty reasonable claim to make:
We’re pretty darn good enough that if we play our style — no matter how good your style is — we can beat you.
Why shouldn’t Pop and the Spurs go big in an attempt to cancel out the Warriors’ approach? Will they have to make certain concessions at times? Undeniably. Will they have to react to what Steve Kerr does at times? Sure. Does this — will this? — mean the Spurs can’t dictate matchups in portions of a seven-game series? Hardly. Leaning on Aldridge and exploiting Barnes will be two of Popovich’s go-to moves… or at the very least, Saturday night certainly offered that path for Pop, and no one has to wonder if he’ll be agile enough to take it.
This is still, on balance, Golden State’s matchup (and in late May, playoff series) to lose. It would be hard to dispute that, especially since the Warriors will almost certainly have home-court advantage. Let’s just acknowledge that if the path to a San Antonio series win seemed hard to discern heading into Saturday, it’s a lot clearer on Sunday.
That’s certainly something the Warriors have to be mindful of… even though the view of the world at 62-7 is still better than San Antonio’s or anyone else’s.