The normally stout San Antonio defense was ripped apart by the Warriors in Game 1. Rarely do we see a Spurs team that looks more discombobulated than they looked Saturday afternoon as the Warriors were able to get Kevin Durant into very favorable matchups and find their off-ball screeners on multiple slips to the basket, taking advantage of the Spurs’ switching scheme en route to a 116.5 offensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass. Despite missing Stephen Curry, the Warriors had no trouble generating quality offense in their normal fashion.
Gregg Popovich implemented a switch-heavy scheme in Game 1, hoping to take away the three-point line and force the Warriors to try to trade two for two with the Spurs. This strategy worked, for the most part; Golden State had a 27.2 percent three-point rate. There were only 13 games all regular season in which the Warriors put up that few three-pointers as a portion of their overall field goal attempts and just one of those 13 was against San Antonio in a game the Spurs won in mid-March. In the three Golden State wins this regular season, the Warriors sported a three-point rate north of 31 percent.
The problem for San Antonio came inside in the arc, where the Warriors shot 57.6 percent, most of which came in the halfcourt. Golden State scored just 11 points in transition and if you take out their 5-for-8 shooting in those situations, they torched the Spurs for 29-for-51 on halfcourt two-pointers. In particular, Kevin Durant posed a massive problem for San Antonio, as one would expect, but the switching scheme they were running just made things easier for Durant. They don’t have a great foil for Durant’s size and skill with Kawhi Leonard sidelined but switching the likes of Dejounte Murray, Patty Mills, and Bryn Forbes onto perhaps the best scorer in the league is a recipe for disaster.
Smaller defenders are completely at Durant’s mercy in these isolations. Durant turned and faced up against Murray and Forbes, who backed off a half step to play defense as you normally would in that situation, but Durant’s immense length and high release point makes it too easy for him to shoot on the spot. Mills, on the other hand, gets into Durant’s airspace, crowding him so he can’t just shoot over the top, but after a dribble or two, Durant’s open again and Mills is helpless to stop him. The Spurs went away from this strategy later in the game, sticking Danny Green on Durant and not switching as often.
Like Pop told reporters after the game, Durant is almost impossible to defend, especially without Leonard in the lineup. However, there were plenty of other places where the Spurs defense broke down for easy baskets, most prominently in botching switches on off-ball down screens and split cuts out the Warriors’ Triangle series.
Not having the physical ability to contend with Durant in isolation is one thing; there’s not a whole lot Popovich can do about that other than pray Durant misses. Messing up switches and allowing layups at the rim is something the Spurs can control and they did a poor job of it in Game 1. I expect Popovich and his staff will point out these mistakes in film sessions before Game 2.
If the Warriors played well offensively, they were otherworldly defensively. The Spurs couldn’t get anything going against the stingy Golden State defense, starting with LaMarcus Aldridge, who picked up right where he left off in last year’s Western Conference Finals. As they’ve done all year, San Antonio played through Aldridge in the post in Game 1, to the same horrific results. He scored just 4 points on 10 post-ups against JaVale McGee and company and passing out of the post wasn’t much better for the Spurs. The insistence early on from the Spurs to go to Aldridge on the block sank them as the game got out of hand, but there were still possessions in between all those post-ups that went better for San Antonio. They scored 43 points on 41 pick-and-roll possessions (including passes) in the game and had some success going at McGee when he was guarding Aldridge.
Going into Game 2, it’ll be interesting to see what offensive adjustments Popovich makes with regards to Aldridge’s post-ups. McGee proved to be a match for Aldridge in those situations, where his length and athleticism can frustrate the mercurial big man for San Antonio. Getting out of posting up Aldridge and moving toward a scheme that includes more pick-and-roll could benefit the Spurs, forcing McGee to make decisions in space and using Aldridge’s pick-and-pop ability to get him going. San Antonio suffers for spacing around that action, which means Aldridge is probably going to draw a third defender as the Warriors rotate behind the play. Hitting cutters and the shooters the Spurs do have on the perimeter will be key for Aldridge, even though he’s not a particularly good passer when the defense is rotating quickly.
Even with the lowered expectations coming into the series without Leonard, the Spurs fell short of what they’re capable of doing in Game 1. Popovich has seen performances like this from his team in the past, most notably against the Houston Rockets last season, but the continuation of a worrying trend that goes back to last year’s Western Conference Finals has to have him pulling out his hair trying to figure out how to score against and stop this Golden State team.