The story of Game 1’s Western Conference semifinal between the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors was supposed to be Steph Curry lighting the AT&T Center nets on fire. For the first 44 minutes, Curry and Thompson were dropping buckets into a basket wider than the Pacific Ocean.
In the third quarter, Curry, lit up the Spurs for 22 of his 44 points while assisting on eight more points.
However, in the final four minutes, San Antonio flipped the script during an 18-4 run to end regulation and exposed the sophomoric Warriors to a real-life re-enactment of The Rabbit and the Hare. Then, they put Golden State to sleep on a Pacquiao mattress in double overtime.
Youth really is wasted on the young. The Splash Brothers’ first postseason experience has been a wild ride, but the final 14 minutes was especially painful for Thompson, who fouled out foolishly at the 3:57 mark when the Warriors still led by 16.
Instead of passing the torch and home court advantage to Golden State, the Spurs found a switch on a tree and showed them how old-fashioned discipline works in their house.
Away from the court, Gregg Popovich is a vintage wine expert. He’s spent a prodigious amount of time in a wine cellar and has gone ankle deep in enough grapes to personally testify to the old adage about wine getting better with age. It’s a fitting hobby considering his foundational system has improved over time – even if Tim Duncan hasn’t.
On Monday night, the Spurs slow and steady system outlasted the fast, furious and sometimes, reckless assault from Curry and Klay Thompson.
It wasn’t just the Warriors players that got schooled by the Spurs. Mark Jackson also has to wash the chalk residue off his jacket after Popovich subjected the second-year head coach to an advanced placement coaching lesson.
Midway through the second half, I started wondering if the abundant minutes Curry and Thompson were playing, would have an effect on their fourth quarter stamina. Curry played the entire game and the Warriors also had trouble closing out the Denver Nuggets on multiple occasions.
Conversely, Pop was managing his starter’s minutes like a store manager trying to cut costs. Sure enough, Pop outfoxed Jackson.
Curry played the entire 58 minutes and orchestrated the Warriors offense, but in the fourth quarter he went 2-for-6 from the field and his legs turned to gravel.
The Splash Brothers can drown most defenses in a flurry, but the Spurs slowly dissect opponent with spacing and ball movement. Unlike San Antonio (or Chicago), the Warriors haven’t established a unique system yet.
Meanwhile, Curry ball and miniature lineups are the staple of Golden State’s success. Conversely, not even the best big man of our generation is bigger than Pop’s system. The Spurs didn’t even begin their comeback until Duncan left the floor for the final five minutes, while the Spurs deployed Boris Diaw, who has proven to be more effective for Pop against nimble lineups.
“[Popovich has] got a game plan, a system in those times to go smaller. If they go smaller or have a shooter in there, he likes to put someone a little more mobile in. You’ve got to respect it. You’ve got to sit there and cross your fingers.” Duncan told The San Antonio Express-News in March after Pop placed him on the pine before their final defensive stand in a game against the Dallas Mavericks.
Duncan was effective against Andrew Bogut, but the Spurs trailed 102 - 88 when he subbed out and he only played six seconds in the two overtimes.
After 18 years there’s still no predictability to the Spurs tactics. At the conclusion of regulation and double overtime, a pair of perfectly executed plays allowed Danny Green and then Ginobili to spot up for wide open treys.
Defensive breakdowns by the Warriors allowed Ginobili, who had missed his last seven shots, to slip free behind the arc on the left wing for the game-winner.
“I stopped coaching him [Ginobili] long ago.” Pops shrugged to the media during his postgame press conference.
The Spurs bench may be the deepest in the league, but there’s no substitute for experience. The Spurs are a product of “the system” and are on-court extensions of Pop. Pop’s spent 17 seasons drilling these essential lessons into Duncan who has passed it down to Ginobili and Parker and Green.
The Spurs demonstrated that it’s not how you start that matters. It’s how you finish. Jackson’s coaching job is just getting started. How the Warriors respond will depend a lot on whatever system he deploys.