Monday night’s TNT matchup between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers was supposed to be a tough duel between two championship contenders probable to meet in the Finals once again.
LeBron James vs. Stephen Curry. And with rather hilarious champagne quotes, talk of disrespect and having answers on the court, the stakes couldn’t be higher for a regular season game.
Then the game started, and for all intents and purposes by mid-way through the second quarter it was over. The Warriors absolutely roasted the Cavaliers and LeBron, winning by 34 points, and Cleveland barely avoided its worst home loss in franchise history with a late flurry of points.
One game doesn’t tell the entire story, but having lost to the Spurs just a few days earlier, the message for teams like the Cavaliers and the Thunder – who would be among the title favorites in practically any other season – became clear.
The gap between the Spurs, Warriors, and everyone else is enormous.
Golden State and San Antonio are a combined 43-0 on their home courts. The Spurs are on an 11-game winning streak and have outscored opponents by an average of 17.8 points in that time. The Dubs, on the other hand, are mathematically on pace to win 74 games right now, despite going “cold” recently, losing two of their last 10 games.
The difference in net rating – the amount of points scored per 100 possessions compared to an opponent, which is typically regarded as the best indicator of future playoff performance – between the Spurs and Cavs is 9.5 points, equaling the difference between the Cavs and the 25th ranked New Orleans Pelicans.
By average margin of victory, after half a season of play, the Spurs and the Warriors currently rank among the very best teams in NBA history.
Only 10 teams have outscored opponents by an average of 10 points or more in a season. Those teams include seven NBA champions, this season’s Spurs and Warriors, and the 1971-72 Bucks, who lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. And that Laker squad is on the list.
Basically, every time a team has outscored opponents by 10 or more points per game, they’ve either won an NBA championship, or lost to another team in that group that won the championship.
The Spurs and the Warriors are amazing, and far beyond any other teams. ESPN’s NBA BPI Playoff Odds currently estimate the probability of either team winning the championship at 85.0 percent, giving the rest of the league just a 15 percent chance.
Integrating LaMarcus Aldridge took a while, and the Spurs offense actually sputtered quite a bit to start off the season, making their overall numbers particularly impressive. Meanwhile, the Warriors have had to battle injuries to multiple players, and every starter has missed time this season.
While it’s not a lock that the two will meet in the playoffs, it’s very likely. The Thunder are good enough to beat either the Spurs or the Warriors if everything goes right, though it seems almost impossible that they’ll be able to pull off the feat twice in a row and then beat the Cavaliers in the Finals. For the Cavs, the road is much easier since they only need to beat the odds once.
What happens when the two face each other is strategically interesting, and in many ways the series will probably be considered a coin-flip by the betting markets. Currently, the Spurs rank third in offensive efficiency and first in defensive rating, while the Warriors rank first and fourth respectively.
On the face of it, the Warriors seem to have some matchup advantages, mainly created by Stephen Curry and the effects of his shooting trickle down all the way down the roster.
The NBA has been uniformly moving towards more conservative styles of defense over the past few years. Only a few teams and players will hedge hard on screens, and there aer almost no big men who can chase quick guards around the perimeter, and then recover back to the lane to guard their own man.
Most teams, most of the time, will have their big man drop down to the foul line to “contain” the pick-and-roll action, and the benefits of doing so with a smart defender are many. First, the idea is to make the pick-and-roll a strictly “two vs. two” situation, where teams can limit the amount of help they have to give. The NBA has become increasingly adept at shooting three-pointers and moving the ball around the perimeter for open shots, and being able to contain the initial action so that your entire defense isn’t forced to react to what the offense is doing has become a key for success.
Tim Duncan guarding the pick-and-roll
Tim Duncan has mastered the in-between game in the lane, where the big man has to cover both the ballhandler and the roll man for a time. Duncan is 39 years old, and the fact that ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus ranks him as the best defensive player this season (+6.6 points saved per 100 possessions) is ludicrous. NBA players typically decline quickly after the age of 32.
Curry absolutely breaks everything this type of defense is built to do. You can’t drop to the foul line against Curry, because if you do, he’ll hit the three-pointer off the dribble at a rate that will kill you.
Stephen Curry pull-up three-pointer
Defenses are forced to do the exact opposite of what they want to do, making Curry a game-plan killer. Trapping Curry is the only choice, but that immediately puts you at a 4-on-3 disadvantage elsewhere on the court – with Draymond Green becoming a master at punishing teams on the roll with his passing.
Draymond Green assist to the corner
There’s literally no satisfactory way of defending that play, and when Green gets the ball in the middle after the trap, the possession is already over. Per Vantage Sports, Green leads the NBA in corner three-pointers assisted at 47 on the season, almost double the number of any other player.
Curry’s shooting, and the effects of of his gravity on the court, may force the Spurs to go small – something they haven’t done at all this season. Gregg Popovich has always stuck with Duncan no matter what, and in previous years Duncan has delivered. But if put to a choice between Aldridge and Duncan, it’ll be interesting to see how Pop reacts.
Defensively, the Warriors should be fine going with their super small “Death Lineup” of Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Green. Even though Duncan’s defense is still among the best in the NBA, his offensive game has deteriorated to the degree that the Warriors should be fine with him posting up Barnes, leaving Green to guard the bigger threat (Aldridge). Even when San Antonio has the size advantage, they probably won’t be able to destroy the Warriors inside, either on the post or on the offensive glass. The Spurs currently rank 17th in offensive rebounding percentage, strategically favoring transition defense – something that is a must against the run-and-gun Warriors.
On the other hand, the Spurs will probably finish with the most dominant scoring margin in NBA history, they know how to win playoff games, and have the best basketball coach the world has ever seen. The two teams rank first and second in field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, assist percentage and virtually every other category of significance.
On Monday, January 25th, the Spurs and Warriors will play in Oracle Arena, and we’ll get a taste of what the future might hold. Popovich is such a wild card he may throw the game in an effort to not reveal anything about his team to Golden State. Who knows. What is clear is that every possession is an opportunity to learn, find edges and look for things that work.
By any objective measure, both teams are among the best in NBA history, and it’s likely we haven’t seen such a dominant matchup since perhaps the 1971-72 Bucks and Lakers, if perhaps ever.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.