Warriors have the answers for playoff challenges — even the Spurs

This is my Sunday column.

Bring on the Spurs already.

Forget the Grizzlies, the Blazers, the Clippers, the Rockets, the Pelicans — not one of them has a realistic shot to eliminate the Warriors in the playoffs.

We’ve seen enough to say that with certainty. The Warriors earned home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, and their record at home this season is 36-2. Report: They’re really, really good. Only the Spurs and the Bulls have beaten them at Oracle Arena this season, and the Bulls play in the East.

The Warriors may never face the Spurs — San Antonio currently is the No. 3 seed, the Warriors the No. 1 — so they almost surely won’t play each other until the Western Conference final.

The Warriors can beat the Spurs. But the Spurs can beat the Warriors, too. This series would be the ultimate test for Golden State, starting with its new coaching staff.

Steve Kerr probably will win the Coach of the Year award. He has been brilliant, especially for a first-year coach. He handled the regular season perfectly. How will he handle the playoffs?

Playoff basketball almost is a different sport than regular-season basketball. In the regular season, teams play each other once and then they’re on to the next opponent. They hardly get to know each other.

In the playoffs, teams play seven-game series and, by the end, teams know each other as well as they know themselves.

Kerr hasn’t ever prepared to coach against one team seven times in a row. What kind of moves will he make during Game 3 and Game 4 when Gregg Popovich has him figured out? Popovich still is the best coach in basketball. One regular season doesn’t change that.

No coach has attacked the Warriors’ weaknesses this season the way Popovich will. Popovich will show Kerr things has never seen.

We can guess some of the things Popovich will do. We know he objects to basketball players who can’t shoot free throws. It’s almost a moral objection. He is like Don Nelson in his killer instinct. Like Nelson, he embarrasses players and kills their spirit, which is the right way to coach.

Nellie used to isolate the worst defender and go after him again and again until the opposing coach took him off the court. Nellie also had his players foul bad free-throw shooters so they could embarrass themselves trying to do the easiest thing in the sport, shoot free throws. Popovich will do the same thing. You can count on it.

The Warriors have four players who are shooting worse than 75 percent from the free-throw line this season – Harrison Barnes (72 percent), Draymond Green (65 percent), Andre Iguodala (60 percent), and Andrew Bogut (53 percent).

If they miss free throws in the regular season, who cares? In the playoffs, things get magnified. Iguodala might miss a couple of free throws and then start passing the ball instead of taking shots because he doesn’t want to shoot and go to the stripe and miss free throws with the season on the line. We’ve seen Iguodala avoid shooting before, even during the regular season.

What else should Kerr expect from Popovich?

We know Popovich won’t let Stephen Curry be a hero and take all of those 3s. That’s a given. Popovich will put his best defender on Curry, and his best defender is small forward Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard became the Spurs’ best player this season. He is only 23 years old, and he is one of the 10 best players in the NBA. He’s 6-7, but he has a 7-3 wingspan and he’s quicker than Curry. Leonard could frustrate him. He’ll poke the ball away from Curry, make him tentative, force him to pass. At least that’s the theory. If Leonard can’t do those things, Popovich simply will double-team Curry — whatever it takes to make him give up the ball.

That means Klay Thompson will have to carry the Warriors’ offense against San Antonio. Popovich can’t double-team both him and Curry, has to concede jump shots to one of them. So he will concede them to Thompson. No-brainer.

But that still is a dangerous strategy. Thompson can beat the Spurs. He averaged 21.3 points per game and shot 45.8 percent from the field this season. He made the All-Star team for the first time. The Warriors need him to play like an All-Star in playoffs, too. He hasn’t in the past. In 19 playoff games, he’s been passive and ineffective, averaging 15.6 points per game and shooting just 42.6 percent.

Thompson must be aggressive against the Spurs. Force the issue. Take open shots, and when the other team scrambles to 3-point line to stop them, drive the lane and draw fouls.

Same goes for Harrison Barnes, the weakest link in the Warriors’ starting five. Popovich will not respect him, although maybe he should. Popovich will guard Barnes with 6-2 point guard Tony Parker. That’s what he did when the Warriors and Spurs played in the playoffs two years ago. Parker guarded Barnes, and Barnes scored 26 points in Game 4 and 25 points in Game 5. Barnes is 6-8 — he can post up Parker and shoot over him.

The Warriors will beat the Spurs if Barnes does that every game. This series will come down to how well he and Thompson play.

It also could come down to age. The Spurs are old. Old teams age quickly in the playoffs, all that flying back and forth across the country, and all that running back and forth along the court. The Warriors could run them right out of the postseason.

And then there’s Kerr. Who’s to say he can’t outcoach Popovich? Everyone knows Popovich is great. Kerr may be even greater. We could witness a changing of the guard.

And then there’s Curry. Even though Popovich will try to take him out of the game, Curry may be unstoppable. We’ve seen that scenario before. The series still might come down to Curry, the best player on the court. Apologies to Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard.

Admit it — everyone wants this series to happen. It’s the ultimate showdown. It feels like destiny.

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

This article has 12 Comments

  1. Not everyone wants to see it, Spurs are the only team that can knock off the Warriors, and I hope the Spurs are knocked out in the first playoff round.

  2. Sorry, Grant. Spurs are currently the 5th seed. They have the same record as the 2 and 3 seeds (Memphis and LAC, respectively), but are 5th due to a tiebreaker. They could end up 2, 3, 5, or even 6. Very realistic shot that W’s face them in the 2nd round.

  3. Pretty spot on Grant. The Spurs are the one team that has the talent to go small and still match up against the Dubs. If they meet it will be a great series. We just need the Clippers to drop a game so the Spurs can finish in the 3 spot.

  4. Don’t forget about the Cavs. They’re better than the Bulls.

    Spurs are tough but they’re also old. Warriors win if they can play good D and get out and run. While Leonard can only guard one position at a time, it won’t always be Curry. The Spurs bigs will hedge out on the PnR to prevent Curry from shooting 3s which will mean Draymond (as the screener) will have to make plays. The series will come down to how he does. If I were Pop, I’d have Leonard guard Draymond so he’d figure into the PnR every time (harassing the dribbler with his ridiculous wingspan and quick hands or threatening the jumper). That’s the only way I can see them gumming up our offense. Barnes, Thompson and Bogut won’t have the same success catching the ball at the high post off the Curry pass.

  5. So did anyone look at Grant’s poll on what the Niners should take in the first round? 41 votes for QB. Wow! What a bunch of Kaep Haters!

    1. Yeah right, who is to say you didnt go to a bunch of cafes and place every one of those votes yourself? I’m sure that you aren’t quite that odd, but you sure do hate kaep enough to do it!

  6. As good as the Warriors are you can not trust a jump shooting team in the playoffs. The adage live by the three die by the three rings especialy true in the postseason. For the same reason i am not convinced that the Hawks are a true threat in the east. Only Houston took more and made more threes a game than the warriors but unlike the dubs Hou has a player who can get to the rack (harden) and a semi reliable post presence in Howard.
    The Warriors have no one outside of Curry who can get to the basket and if he is having an off night or is in foul trouble getting buckets in crunch time could be a challenge Having to constantly rely on jump shots to fall is a recepie for disaster.
    The spurs can also shoot 3s but they can do it from an inside out strategy where as the dubs have no post presence

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *