OAKLAND -- It was an unlikely end to what once felt like an epic series.
After double-OT shootouts, Tony Parker midrange clinics and all manner of ill-advised-for-anyone-but-Steph shots, the Spurs finished off the beat-up Warriors 94-82 Thursday night without Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili on the floor in crunch time. Meanwhile Parker, the only member of the Big Three in the game, was in the midst of one of the worst shooting nights of his career.
Instead, on this night, the Spurs won with Tiago Splitter (14 points, 6-of-8 from the field), Kawhi Leonard (a double-double) and waves of defense. As they had since Game 3, the Spurs hounded the Warriors shooters off the 3-point line, sending what Popovich termed "a half double" at Steph Curry almost immediately after he crossed midcourt. The Spurs' rotations were quick and on point, their perimeter defenders relentless. The result: the Warriors managed only one three-point attempt in the first quarter and finished with 38.8 percent shooting from the field for the night. Afterward, a worn-down looking Popovich credited the Warriors. "They really tested our defense," he said. "It was a tough series."
As before, the key was containing Curry, a task Popovich went to great lengths to emphasize. When Curry hit his first three, midway through the first half, Popovich immediately called timeout, at which point Tony Parker and Danny Green got in a heated argument about who was at fault. When Curry got a rare wide-open three some time later, a shot he uncharacteristically bricked, another timeout followed, during which Popovich advanced upon Matt Bonner, hands on either side of his face, aghast. "I didn't want them to get on a roll or get momentum," Popovich said about the quick timeouts. It's a mistake Pop feels he made during Games 1 and 2, when Curry and Klay Thompson got hot.
With so much focus on Curry, the Spurs ended up leaving the Warriors' big men wide open, comically so at times. When Curry ran the pick-and-roll with Bogut, the Spurs fled from the Warriors center, who had enough room to take two dribbles and shoot floaters from six feet (unfortunately for the Warriors, he didn't make many). Meanwhile, David Lee and Carl Landry were given as many open 17-footers as they wanted.
For their part, the Warriors' focus was, as coach Mark Jackson said, "to make life tough for Tony Parker." They succeeded -- Parker finished 3-of-16 from the field, missing the type of 14-footers he usually drains. The cost to the Warriors was heavy minutes for their offensively challenged trio of big men: Bogut, Festus Ezeli and Andris Biedrins (the strange tenor of the night was summed up best by a brief moment, late in the third quarter, when Biedrins, who'd been buried on Jackson's bench since roughly last May, had played more minutes than Manu Ginobili).
By the end of the game, the Warriors had gone extremely small, but not by choice. Hindered by injuries all postseason -- David Lee's hip flexor, Bogut's ankle, Curry's ankle -- the Warriors watched in dismay as small forward Harrison Barnes slammed to the court facefirst in the second quarter, suffering a cut on his forehead which later turned into what the Warriors called "a headache" that caused Barnes to go to the locker room at the start of the fourth quarter. (Afterward, Warriors spokesman Raymond Ridder said the team put Barnes through concussion tests before letting him go back in the game).
Barnes had been the best player on the Warriors much of the night, guarding Tony Parker on defense while posting him up on the other end. Still, without both Barnes and Bogut, whose ankle was so balky that he told Jackson in the second half that he "basically couldn't move," according to Jackson, the Warriors had enough for one final run, cutting the Spurs' lead to two points with a little over four minutes left. And that's when we saw the difference between the young Warriors and the veteran, disciplined Spurs, in the space of a few possessions. While Steph Curry and Klay Thompson settled for three consecutive contested jump shots, the Spurs used ball movement, penetration and spacing to free Tony Parker for a wide-open corner three pointer, which he drained. As Jackson put it, the Spurs "execute you to death." And indeed, the Spurs' ball movement is something the Warriors would be wise to imitate as they move forward.
As the final seconds ticked down, many among the raucous Oracle crowd of 19,596, which had been so loud all night, stood and chanted for their team, yelling "Warriors! Warriors!" No doubt fans will miss Curry in these playoffs, chewing on his protruding mouthpiece and then moonballing in threes, the most nonchalant scorer in the NBA. For a team not expected to make the postseason, let alone the second round, it was a remarkable run for Golden State. It also answered any number of questions about the franchise. The team now knows that Steph Curry can be a successful number one option on a good team. It knows Jackson is a keeper, the rare coach who can unite a team with almost missionary zeal. It knows that Bogut, when healthy, is exactly the type of defensive force the front office had hoped for. And, with the emergence of Barnes and Draymond Green, the Warriors now know they can win without David Lee if need be. The future is bright indeed.
As for the Spurs, they move on to a Western Conference Finals against the Grizzlies that should be a fascinating, if perhaps aesthetically displeasing, matchup. In some respects, the Grizzlies are the opposite of the Warriors on offense, a slow-paced half court team with few outside threats but two multi-talented big men. It's the kind of series that hardcore fans and assistant coaches the world over will love. It may also be the last stand of the Big Three.