By Rahul Lal
The Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs will battle it out in the NBA Western Conference Finals. The West has given us a little bit of everything in these playoffs, from MVP candidates James Harden and Russell Westbrook going head-to-head to a Joe Johnson career revival. But it now comes down to the two teams everyone predicted would be here.
We’ve had a great chance to watch a lot of tough Spurs basketball lately. The bad news for them? The Warriors have been watching too. The Warriors swept the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz en route to the conference finals and, while missing their coach, haven’t faced any real resistance. The dismantling of the Blazers was expected, but overwhelming the Jazz, the best defensive team in the NBA, (and making it look easy) was more impressive. Utah gave up less than 97 points a game this season but were exploited for an average of a 111 points per game in the second-round series. This is a testament to just how dangerous Golden State is.
While we all know about their fatal four, the Warriors’ depleted bench has impressed of late. It may be simply because of the blowouts, but the team quietly has 11 players averaging double-digit minutes in the playoffs and has seen sparks from them. Kevin Durant finally looks fully healthy, while Steph, Klay and Dray are doing what we expect them to. Golden State’s defense is probably the most menacing in the entire league at the moment, anchored by Draymond Green, who is averaging 2.6 blocks and 2 steals per game in the postseason.
The Spurs have faced a different kind of challenge to get to this point. Kawhi Leonard has made his case as the NBA’s best two-way player this season. While we’ve certainly seen Kawhi display his talent on offense before, he’s taken a Kobe-esque approach to his game this season, knocking down fadeaways, playing iso ball and showing the killer instinct that makes him one of the league’s biggest threats with the ball. On defense, always his strong suit, he has shown an ability to not only guard the opposing team’s top player but also make the plays that lock up games (oh, and you too, Manu). David Fizdale, coach of their first-round opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies, actually wondered aloud if Kawhi is a robot. And with good reason, his stats in that series seemed almost inhuman.
Although Leonard has been the biggest reason for San Antonio’s success, they shocked the Rockets without him in game six to close out the series. (He was reportedly healthy enough to play.) Tony Parker also went down with a ruptured quadricep in what might be his last postseason, though advanced stats darling Patty Mills has already been taking some of his minutes. Mills is a more versatile threat on offense with his long ball and less of a turnstile on defense than Parker has become at this point in his career. That said, there’s no true replacement for the experience and leadership Parker provides alongside Coach Pop.
The Western Conference Finals will definitely be competitive, though a few keys for each team could shift the balance. The Spurs will need to see some consistency out of LaMarcus Aldridge, who started slowly against the Grizzlies and Rockets. While Kawhi will have his hands full playing everywhere, Danny Green must rise to the challenge of guarding many of the same guys at the defensive end. On offense, the team must continue to play within themselves and their system, as they did against Houston, controlling the tempo and forcing the fast-paced Rockets into four games of under 100 points.
The Warriors’ keys to success are already working in their favor. They are easily outpacing opponents, sweeping both and leaving themselves plenty of time to rest their stars and keep them fresh and healthy — something that plagued them last postseason. The defense is dominating opponents, averaging over seven steals and seven blocks each game. More than anything, the team is playing with the chemistry people worried about for so long. They look happy to be playing together and ready to fight.
The biggest knock on the Warriors is that they haven’t yet played a legitimate threat in the playoffs. While true that the Jazz looked pretty good against the Clippers, who were taken very seriously just a few weeks ago, the Spurs are an actual title contender. And they will throw all they have at the Warriors. Still it’s tough to imagine the Spurs beating the Warriors four times in seven games without any Golden State injuries. The series should be very competitive, but the Warriors pull it out and advance to the NBA Finals for their chance to get Kevin Durant his first ring.
Prediction: Warriors in 6.
Rahul Lal is an LA native stuck in a lifelong, love-hate relationship with the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.