OAKLAND — The Golden State Warriors welcome their first postseason opponent who could reasonably beat them today.
The San Antonio Spurs — the last team to make a claim of being an NBA dynasty — roll into the Western Conference Finals after destroying the Houston Rockets in Game 6 despite playing without their MVP favorite, Kawhi Leonard.
Warriors players and coaches were surprised to see the Rockets go down without more of a fight, but they certainly aren’t shocked to be facing the Spurs in this moment. Even if they haven’t met each other in the playoffs since 2013.
Expect another physical series defined by both teams fighting to establish their preferred pace — the Warriors want to run, the Spurs aim to limit the total number of possessions.
This series could easily go seven, and should serve as a palate cleanser for NBA fans after a second round defined by blowouts.
Here are five more themes of the upcoming series.
1. Master vs. students
Gregg Popovich is a coaching legend. The kind that has a tree of former assistants holding high-profile positions throughout the league. Like, for instance, Steve Kerr and Mike Brown — the Warriors’ current coaching team. When asked after Friday’s practice if facing the person he worked for produced an intimidation factor, Brown joked, “I think I could beat Pop up, he’s like 70.” If that response isn’t the mark of a mentee of Popovich — who answered a question in October about giving Kerr advice with, “I tell him to go urinate in a bucket” — I don’t know what is.
2. How healthy is Kawhi?
San Antonio’s best player missed the Spurs’ final game against the Rockets to deal with a sprained ankle. Leonard has the unique skillset to shut down an otherworldly scorer like Kevin Durant while also shouldering most of his team’s scoring load. Leonard expects to play Game 1, but his health will be imperative for a competitive series.
3. Who will it be?
Part of what makes Popovich such a dynamic coach is his willingness to constantly switch up the lineup. Take 20-year old Dejounte Murray against the Houston Rockets for example. He played 20 minutes in Game 4, making four of his eight attempts and throwing three assists. Then, he took a Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision in the next contest before breaking out for 11 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block across 24 minutes in Game 6. That’s a great outing, and he could very well not play today. That rotation fluidity is not easy to gameplan for.
4. Draymond takes on the bigs
Nobody in the NBA plays big better than the Spurs. That’ll add pressure on Draymond Green to stymie a resurgent LaMarcus Aldridge and an always great Pau Gasol.
5. Ignore the regular season
The Spurs and Warriors played each other three times during the regular season. San Antonio won twice, including when Golden State was “murdered” in the first game on the schedule. But the Dubs continue to play better than they ever have and Popovich isn’t one to play his hand before the games really matter. They matter now, they didn’t then.