1. A win would position the Spurs to capitalize on a potential Warriors late-season wobble.
It is Year 19 of the Duncapopolithic age, and the Spurs are flirting with 70 wins. They are posting a historic net rating (13.4). They have assembled their best defensive team since 2003-04 — a mobile, physical, in-your-face Voltron, anchored by gray-bearded Tim Duncan’s rim fortress. They have the stoic synthetic human Kawhi Leonard and not-shooting-well-but-doing-everything-else-well Danny Green. And still they are three games behind the Golden State Starkiller Base in the Western Conference, and likely won’t have Game 7 of the conference finals on their home court (where they are undefeated).
2. If not now, when?
In any other season, the Spurs would be runaway title favorites.
This, however, is the season of Steph Curry, who has officially reached “for the children” status. In the first clash between these titans, back in January, Steph stood next to the mountain and chopped it down with the edge of his hand: 37 points on 12-of-20 shooting (including 6-of-9 from 3), plus five steals for good measure. When, during that game, Pop fulfilled the fantasies of basketball nerds everywhere by aiming the Kawhi-bot at him, Curry entered bullet time and put Leonard on a Vine. True, Duncan missed the game with knee-related oldness, but that was little comfort, considering the 120-90 scale of the demolition.
On Saturday night, Golden State came into the AT&T Center (where they had not won in the regular season since 1997) on the second night of a back-to-back and down two key players (Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala, a card-carrying Lineup du Mort).
If the Spurs couldn’t have beaten the Warriors under those circumstances, it would’ve been fair to wonder if they ever could.
3. LaMarcus Aldridge deleted his social media accounts after the Spurs had lost the first regular-season matchup.
Drastic times call for drastic measures. Aldridge looked out of sorts in the first meeting, scoring only five points on 2-of-9 shooting, with a plus-minus of minus-20. Since deleting his Twitter and Instagram accounts, Aldridge’s scoring average has increased from just over 15 points per game to 22. If someone makes a “Never Tweet” Aldridge T-shirt, I will buy it.
4. Pop really went for it.
Gregg Popovich is often referred to as a chess player. But in my mind, the best game-of-skill metaphor is Hearthstone. He understands which cards to play early and which to play late, how to force his tempo on an opponent, and how to effectively use his mana. I don’t even care whether you understand that reference. The point is, Pop used his best deck for this game. He pulled Tim Duncan from the starting lineup for Boris Diaw (last time Duncan came off the bench at home: March 18, 2004) and went small. Well, small in a sense. The Diaw-Aldridge frontcourt may be short on 7-footers, but in terms of B2H (butt-to-height ratio) they are dominant. All that rear (and the absence of Bogut) helped the Spurs clear acres of space under the glass and rack up a 53-37 rebounding advantage. Here’s me looking at Pop’s small-ball lineup:
Pop kept human victory ogre Boban Marjanovic (13 minutes in the first game) out of sight; there was no Professor Andre Miller; there was barely any of Professor Andre Miller’s Looper, Kyle Anderson (16 minutes on January 25); and Kevin Martin played the same amount of time it takes to microwave a bag of popcorn. Pop was serious.
5. Tim Duncan spent most of the game on his docking station.
Only eight minutes of floor time! The Spurs dare not waste his sacrifice.
This piece originally appeared in the March 21, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.