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Gregg Popovich's Scheming Threw The Warriors Off Their Game

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The Spurs dealt the Warriors their seventh loss of the season last night down in San Antonio, and held the Dubs to just 79 points in the process. Those who switched over from college basketball hoping for a more exciting game probably would have had more fun sticking with March Madness, since the Spurs made the game an ugly, slow, physical wrestling match. Curry had a terrible night, and only hit four of his 18 shots. Here’s a lowlight reel.

As you’ll notice, the Spurs stayed in Curry’s grill the entire game over every square inch of hardwood. When he ran through a pick and roll, San Antonio would aggressively switch onto him. If he got himself a sliver of separation, they’d run two dudes right at him. Popovich’s gambit clearly knocked Curry’s rhythm askew early and he never looked like himself for the rest of the game. Curry took the blame for the loss, and told Ethan Sherwood Strauss that he had to do a better job balancing the offense out under fire.

“The biggest thing tonight was, we were trying to exploit that spacing by shooting a bunch of perimeter shots,” Curry said. “That’s fine if they’re going in. But you know right away, missed my first three or so, struggled a little bit in that first quarter. You gotta be able to attack the basket a little bit more.”


In the first meeting, which Golden State took by 30, Gregg Popovich tried Kawhi Leonard on Steph, but it didn’t exactly work. This time, Popovich shifted the Spurs’ entire gameplan around in a different way to stop Curry. Tim Duncan didn’t start for just the third time in his career and he only played eight rather anonymous minutes. David West also played just eight minutes, and the Spurs relied almost exclusively on Boris Diaw and LaMarcus Aldridge. While Duncan is a great defensive anchor, he isn’t as able on the perimeter as BoBo or LMA. Pop sacrificed the potential offensive benefits of Duncan and West for the lateral quickness of his other two power forwards.

Diaw has long been a weird trump card Popovich plays in times of emergency. You wouldn’t think it looking at his graying temples or sizable girth, but the Frenchman is an instinctive, strong defender. He ably harried LeBron in the 2013 Finals, and he did fine when switched onto Steph last night. Neither of those dudes are going to be favored in a matchup against Curry, but when the Spurs mixed up their looks and attacked him with three, sometimes four, different defenders on each play, he looked genuinely uncomfortable.

Now, as much as Popovich’s plans neutralized Curry, he still had plenty of chances to torch them. The most telling stat of the evening was Curry’s abysmal percentage on open looks.


The Spurs should be concerned that he got eight open looks. They might be the best-equipped team to handle the ruptures his generational shooting causes, but it’s not like they stumbled onto the formula for stopping Steph every time out. Yes, he had a three blocked for the first time all year, but even when Kawhi Leonard had Steph, Curry still got himself space to work.

I’m not sure that the Spurs will ever out-rebound the Warriors 53-37 again, especially if Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, and Andre Igoudala get healthy by the time the two teams inevitably meet in the Western Conference Finals. Also, Pop’s strategy worked last night, but if the Warriors were ready for it, as they’d hypothetically be in the playoffs, there are ways to break this particular defensive operation down.


As Steph hinted, if he quickly drove at and around the switching defender, that opens up Golden State’s offense and gets them those little four-on-threes that they are deadly with. If the Spurs are going to switch everything, the Warriors could also just run pick-and-rolls until they get a matchup they like, and let Steph go to work.

All of this is easier in theory, and the Spurs do have a series of lengthy defenders that’ll make Steph’s incisive entry passes harder to throw, but this Spurs strategy is based on switching and timely double teams, and both of those gambits only work for so long. After all, Curry shot three-for-four when Aldridge was on him, and Steph has been excellent this year even when his shots are tightly contested.


The Spurs’ ability to score down low will be a problem for Golden State. Draymond Green is stronger than Aldridge, but the big man still scored 25 and grabbed 13 boards yesterday. I don’t believe fully in the sustainability of Pop’s adjustment, but it does appear that San Antonio is as able as anyone to slow the game down and keep the Warriors from flying around the court like they do against every other opponent (Sam Amick says their pace was just 90.16 last night, more than eight possessions slower than usual).


The two teams will play twice in the span of four days in April, and the Warriors should be healthier and ready for this scheme. That said, Popovich will almost certainly counter with a different plan. San Antonio made Steph miserable for one night, but they know that he still got a ton of open looks. The Warriors also have to find a way to keep Aldridge quiet, grab some more rebounds, and make Kawhi Leonard work a little harder (Andre Igoudala will help.) It’s going to be fascinating chess if Steve Kerr and Popovich get seven games against each other. The playoffs can’t get here soon enough.

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