SAN ANTONIO — The challenge posed by a team that is 56 games better than .500 and chasing history is profound. An opposing coach must have a masterful game plan, cleverly and skillfully juggle his personnel and perhaps come up with a surprise or two.
You wouldn’t think that could be accomplished by sitting a man who is arguably the best power forward in NBA history, but that’s exactly what Spurs coach Gregg Popovich did Saturday night.
Tim Duncan played only eight minutes – all in the first half. But San Antonio controlled the tempo and the Golden State Warriors for most of the game and evened the season series between the NBA’s two best teams at 1-1 with an 87-79 victory at AT&T Center.
“You make decisions all the time,” Popovich said. “You just try to do what you think’s best for the group. It doesn’t mean you are going to be right or wrong every time, but you just make decisions on what’s going on and what’s in front of you.”
What he found in front of him was a team tantalizing close to breaking one of the NBA’s most impressive records – the Chicago Bulls’ 72-10 season in 1995-96. It is a team that is the polar opposite of the Spurs. The Warriors entered the game leading the league in scoring with 115.9 points a game. The Spurs entered the game allowing the fewest – 92.5 points.
The approaches work for both teams. The Warriors were 62-6 before Saturday’s game; the Spurs 58-10. Their combined 120-16 record marked the first time in NBA history that two teams who were a combined 100 games better than .500 played in a regular season game.
If ever the cliché of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object applied, it was Saturday night.
But it was Popovich who took control of the game. He actually took Duncan out of the starting lineup – only the third time in Duncan’s 1,383-game Hall of Fame career that he did not start – and countered the Warriors’ small ball lineup by inserting the more mobile Boris Diaw at center.
San Antonio defenders aggressively attacked Warriors’ perimeter shooters and limited Golden State to a 9-of-36 performance from 3-point range.
Steph Curry, who had 37 points in only three quarters of play when the Warriors defeated the Spurs by 30 points in Oakland on Jan. 25, was 4-of-18 from the field and made only one of his 12 3-point attempts. Curry’s 14 points was 16 below his league-leading average and tied his fourth-lowest output of the season.
Klay Thompson was not much better, making only 7-of-20 from the field and one of his seven 3-pointers. He ended the game with 15 points.
The Warriors, however, had several reasons to be consoled – their 120-90 victory over the Spurs in January (although Duncan did not play in that game because of a sore knee), the demanding schedule that had them playing nine games in 14 nights, including a tough game in Dallas on Friday, and the absence of several key players as Andre Iguodola, Festus Ezeli and Andrew Bogut missed the game because of injuries.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our guys,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “What an effort. Incredible. All the odds were stacked against us. . . . The Spurs played great. They deserve to win. But I’m really proud of the way we fought tonight. It was awesome.”
While the Warriors must win 11 of their final 13 games to surpass the Bulls’ record – and Kerr has said he will rest players down the stretch, so it might be tough – they also will continue to feel the pressure applied by the Spurs.
San Antonio is only three games out of first place in the West and it is evident by the first two games that home court is important. The Warriors also have won 50 consecutive home games, which is the most in NBA history. And the Spurs are now tied with the ’95-96 Bulls with 44 straight victories at home.
Although the Warriors had legitimate excuses for their poor play, they have to be wary of the Spurs defense. Not only were the Spurs perimeter defenders – most notably Danny Green, who guarded Curry much of the night – suffocating, but when the Warriors tried to free up their shooters with screens, the Spurs’ big men did a sensational job of switching. The Warriors simply had little room to shoot.
“The focus was perfect,” Diaw said. “I thought the whole team was ready and in gear. We did it from the beginning of the game and sometimes it’s hard to keep that the whole game, but everybody was focused for the whole game.”
That was especially true for LaMarcus Aldridge, who had only 5 points on 2-of-9 from the field and five rebounds in the Spurs’ loss in January. Aldridge led the Spurs with 26 points and also had 13 rebounds Saturday. Kawhi Leonard added 18 points and 14 rebounds.
One trait the Warriors and Spurs have in common is selflessness. That has been evident throughout the season and no one symbolized it more Saturday night than Duncan, who was not available after the game. When asked if he would have been optimistic about a victory if he had known Duncan was going to play only eight minutes, Aldridge said: “No, and I’ve got to speak about it. He’s just a great person. He didn’t pout, he was very positive, he was talking to me. I don’t know if many guys in that position would have handled it as well as he did. He was great tonight.”
So was the Spurs’ defense, which limited Golden State to a season-low in points scored.
The two teams have now played two games this season and each time, a message has been sent. It will be fascinating to see who ultimately has the last word.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.
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