The first game of the 2017-18 NBA playoffs is in the books, with the Warriors dominating the Spurs, 113-92. Here are three takeaways from a game that was never really close.
Strength in Length
Typically, the twist in a TV series comes in the waning minutes of a finale. But on Saturday, Steve Kerr decided to deploy his first surprise playoff adjustment in the pilot of Spurs-Warriors: starting Andre Iguodala at point guard. The result: a five-man unit with no player shorter than 6-foot-6. By more or less erasing the position, Golden State produced an elongated lineup that suffocated the Spurs with their length from the get-go. Putting all of Golden State’s most defensive-minded veterans in the game at the start re-engaged their effort (which had proved lackadaisical in the final stretch of the regular season) and fueled their commanding victory by prioritizing their physical superiority over the Spurs across the board. San Antonio barely had time to respond, and spoiler: It didn’t have an answer.
The gambit proved to be more of an assertion of strength, and it paid off in myriad ways. The Spurs couldn’t score in the paint, while the Warriors made their living there on the other end. (Golden State outscored San Antonio 34-22 in the area.) On offense, no Spur could keep up with Kevin Durant, who scored 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting and also took advantage of all the double-teams he attracted by consistently finding the open man (he also added seven assists). Klay Thompson, meanwhile, finished with a team-high 27 points and took Patty Mills for a roller-coaster ride all game rendering the Spurs’ undersized guard virtually unplayable on defense. And Draymond Green was in playoff mode again, dishing a team-high 11 assists and bringing his trademark energy to the court. The rest of the team responded in kind. Starting Iguodala didn’t produce much in terms of box-score tangibles, but what it did was unlock a whole lot more that San Antonio couldn’t keep up with.
The Spurs’ regular-season success was marked by their strategy to rely on the playmaking of their skilled bigs in Aldridge and Pau Gasol. Against the Warriors, though, that advantage isn’t just mitigated, it’s reversed into a liability. Golden State doesn’t only have players who can stifle Gasol and Aldridge on offense; they also have the skilled talent to exploit them on the other end as well. San Antonio fought back all game but couldn’t recover. Their sloppy play didn’t help either (it seemed like they missed about 15 layups). By the five-minute mark in the third quarter, with the Warriors up 18, Oracle had begun their victory hymn. Is it too early to say this will be a sweep?
The Lord of the ’Vale
It was only about three months ago that JaVale McGee’s name was tossed out as a possible trade piece for the Warriors near the deadline. McGee was a fun story that had seemingly run its course; Golden State needed a more competent big. But the Warriors kept him, and for at least one game it paid off. McGee was a jackrabbit from tip-off, scoring eight of the team’s first 12 points, and immediately became a two-way matchup nightmare for a slow-plodding LaMarcus Aldridge.
The 7-footer totaled 15 points, four rebounds, and two blocks, and finished a plus-16 in just over 16 minutes. He even got a standing ovation when he exited the game in the third quarter, and it was fully deserved. Personally, I had been looking forward to seeing Jordan Bell make his postseason debut in Game 1. But opening up the gift-wrapping and getting a JaVale McGee Game in the opener instead was an even better present.
Rudy Gay Can’t Save You
Gay came off the bench and scored 15 points. The rub: He led all Spurs scorers; Aldridge only added 14. The Spurs can’t live with that kind of production if they want to have even a slight chance of making the series interesting.
Aldridge’s integrality to this roster is compounded tenfold in the playoffs—the Warriors have stars up and down their roster. The Spurs have one. He needed to be transcendent. Instead, on Saturday, he was flummoxed by McGee of all people. The rest of the Spurs couldn’t muster anything, either; they looked hesitant from beyond the arc, shooting only 22 times (less than their average of 24.1 per game, which is the fourth-lowest in the league) even though they hit them at a 40.9 percent clip. And the one guy who provides length and athleticism at a position—Dejounte Murray—was kept out of rhythm with foul trouble and is already getting treated like Tony Allen by the Warriors defense.
Gay’s performance also highlighted the void that Kawhi Leonard has left all season. In a game with Leonard in the fold, Gay’s performance might’ve been a perfect complement, the key to a close victory. Instead, Gay’s game highlights the talent gap between these two teams. Without Kawhi, and without their next-best player making any sizeable impact, the Spurs are effectively bringing wooden swords to a battle they’ve already lost.