Once Gregg Popovich opted to sit Tim Duncan for Monday night’s matchup, we were never going to get a complete picture of the Warriors’ and Spurs’ relative abilities. But in laying waste to the Spurs 120-90, the Warriors demonstrated that even when Duncan returns, the Spurs will face an uphill slog.
The biggest strategic question was how the Spurs were going to guard Stephen Curry. His increased range, tightened handle, and improved understanding of space have made him nearly impossible to take out of his game this season. But if there’s any team that could do it, it’s the Spurs, who have by far the best defense in the NBA. The gap in defensive rating between the Spurs and the second best defense, the Boston Celtics, is the same as the gap between the Celtics and the league’s twenty-third best defense. According to Warriors coach Steve Kerr, much of this can be attributed to Tony Parker being “healthier and more active.”
Accordingly, Parker opened up the game guarding Curry straight-up, which quickly proved to be a disaster. During a 2:42 flurry in the middle of the first quarter, Curry scored 10 points on Parker via threes, free throws, and one spectacular layup. When Parker left the game, and during the second quarter, Popovich chose to play his ace and had Kawhi Leonard check Curry. For the first time ever, it didn’t matter.
While guarded by the Defensive Player of the Year, Curry continued his reign of terror, most notably on this nasty move where he lost Leonard twice for the foot-on-the-line three:
Or this futile effort by Leonard to pick Curry up on the switch:
Kawhi Leonard is the single most disruptive defensive force in the NBA. He’s holding his opponents to just 39.4 percent on field goals, and helped wrap up superstars like Paul George as the Spurs went 14-2 in December. During the month they let just one wing, DeMar DeRozan, score 20 points against them. But not only was Leonard unable to stop Curry tonight—he went for 37 points and just one turnover in 28 minutes—Leonard was unable to stop whichever Warrior he guarded: the Warriors went 9-10 against him.
A lot changes once Tim Duncan returns, and once this rivalry moves away from the Warriors’ arena where they’re 60-2 over the past two seasons. But Kawhi Leonard was supposed to be—and in the past always has been—the Spurs’ not-so-secret weapon against the Warriors, the Steph Curry kryptonite.
With Leonard unable to even slow the Warriors, the Spurs lost more than just a game in the standings. As Oakland columnist Marcus Thompson II astutely noted on Sunday, there was a real long-term risk in putting Leonard on Curry:
If the Spurs go that route, can Curry handle Leonard? He is the best defender Curry will face. But seeing how much Curry has improved, Popovich may want to keep that gun in his holster. Because if Curry can score on Leonard, the Spurs are in trouble. And if he can’t, more time matched up on Leonard only helps Curry figure things out.
Despite his everyman appeal, Curry doesn’t remotely lack for confidence. But for almost two decades, the Spurs have owned sizable chunks of real estate in the Warriors’ head. Even last season, en route to winning the championship, the Warriors lost to the Spurs twice and were fortunate not to have to play them in the playoffs. But in proving they can solve Kawhi Leonard, the Warriors removed the biggest mental hurdle between themselves and back-to-back NBA championships.
Photo via AP