SAN ANTONIO -- Naturally, nobody popped bubbly or pumped fists high in the sky in a jubilant postgame locker room Saturday night following the San Antonio Spurs' 87-79 victory over the Golden State Warriors.
The Spurs know the game of figuring out the Warriors mirrors chess, not checkers.
So while the victory over the defending NBA champions represents progress for San Antonio in trying to figure out how to handle what could be an eventual Western Conference playoff foe, this veteran Spurs squad understands that they bested a short-handed opponent in one game in March, with the win holding no real significance to the club’s long-term goal of capturing a sixth title.
“Just like you said, It’s a chess match,” said Spurs point guard Tony Parker, who finished with six assists and six points. “It’s about adjustments. You try to make adjustments, and see what kind of defensive scheme can work better against them. I think the whole league is trying to figure them out. I’m not saying we’ve figured them out, but this was a lot better than the first game.”
When the teams first met on Jan. 25, the Spurs -- still working to develop chemistry between new addition LaMarcus Aldridge and the old guard -- tried to match Golden State’s tempo. This turned out to be a trap, resulting in a season-high 25 turnovers and a blowout loss at Oracle Arena. The first matchup between the teams registered as San Antonio’s fastest pace of the season (105.2 possessions per game), while the contest Saturday marked Golden State’s slowest pace (90.2) of its 2015-16 campaign.
Instead of treating the 30-point beating in January as if it were Armageddon, the Spurs calmly went back to the lab, participated in a marathon film session and regrouped.
“It was really tough,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich joked just after that 120-90 debacle. “I had to go to everybody’s house. I slept overnight at about four or five players’ houses just to try to get them straight.”
The Spurs learned from that defeat, the same way they’ll glean more knowledge from Saturday’s win as ammunition for the two upcoming clashes in April against the Warriors.
“Tonight, obviously, is a big one,” Danny Green said. “It’s a good win, it’s a lot of fun, and they’re a good team. So it was a good test for us. [At the] end of the day, it’s still a regular-season game. We’ve got to keep moving forward, getting better and staying healthy, and focus on the next one.”
For just the third time in 1,382 career games, power forward Tim Duncan came off the bench as the Spurs opted to go with Boris Diaw in the starting lineup as a response to Golden State beginning with a a small-ball lineup that featured Brandon Rush, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry.
The move paid dividends, as the Spurs ripped down 14 offensive rebounds -- compared to the Warriors' seven. Kawhi Leonard paced the Spurs with six offensive rebounds, which led to eight second-chance points.
Instead of sulking and hanging his head, Duncan assumed the role of assistant coach and head cheerleader; a selfless move considering he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer once his playing days come to an end.
“You make decisions all the time,” Popovich said. “You just try to do what you think is best for the group. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be right or wrong every time. But you just make decisions based on what’s going on and what’s in front of you.”
Duncan played just eight minutes, contributing only one point and two rebounds, along with providing countless coaching points from the bench in the heat of battle.
“No, we don’t see that often, that’s for sure,” Diaw said of the team’s decision to start him over Duncan. “But it was circumstantial that [the Warriors] started very small. That’s what the Spurs are about. That’s the culture here. Everybody is selfless and unselfish, so no problem for him. If he knows that is the game plan to win the game, he’s going to be on board with it.”
The Spurs executed said game plan almost flawlessly, but they received assistance in facing a Golden State team that was missing Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli. Furthermore, Curry shot an uncharacteristic 1-of-12 from 3-point range; the Warriors combined to shoot 37.8 percent from the field and 25 percent from long distance.
Instead of using Leonard to defend Curry, Popovich stuck him on Green. Leonard served as the initial defender on Curry just twice all night. Leonard took on that role on 46 occasions against Green, who finished with just 11 points. In those 46 possessions, Green created just five assist opportunities.
Curry was able to take a shot off a pass only once all night, which registers as the guard’s fewest attempts all season off passes from teammates. The Warriors shot only 2-of-14 when creating their own offense (shots not taken directly off a pass).
For the Spurs offensively, Aldridge took advantage of Golden State’s decision to go small. Aldridge scored a game-high 26 points, hitting 18 against the Warriors’ small lineup on 50 percent from the field at an average distance of 8.2 feet, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Against Golden State’s big lineup, Aldridge hit 4-of-11 from an average distance of 11.3 feet.
Meanwhile, Leonard reeled off 18 points and four assists, while Diaw hit 6 of 7 shots for 14 points.
“I told the guys I thought their execution and their competitiveness defensively were outstanding, and that’s something you can depend on night after night,” Popovich said. “You never know if you’re going to make shots, but if you can be consistent with your defense, you’re in the ball game. I thought that our guys, this was one of their better execution games in following what we were trying to do.”
But Parker knows more challenges are ahead, with the teams set to play twice more in the regular season, not to mention the likelihood of a showdown in the Western Conference finals.
“I think we made good adjustments, compared to Game 1. But at the end of the day, it’s just one game. They got us pretty good in Game 1, and in Game 2, it went our way,” Parker said. “We’ve got two more games at the end of April. So we just don’t want to get too excited. It’s just one win. We just understand it’s going to take the same effort if we want to beat them again.”