OAKLAND -- And with that, all the side narratives for the Western Conference Final died the grisly deaths they so richly deserved.
In a game so desiccated of drama that not even a Red Panda halftime could save it, Golden State Warriors eviscerated the already perforated San Antonio Spurs by a final score that can best and most cruelly be described as “32 Minutes Of Garbage Time.” The actual numbers for you pedants are 136 to the homes and 100 to the guests, but unless you were giving 36½, you don’t really care that much.
And while San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich explained the size of the loss as the result of an almost team-wide timidity, the Warriors played at a level that almost no team would have been able to match, let alone one with a shredded roster.
Golden State made all the points upon which you may rely for the remainder of this series. They defended too well. They pushed the pace too well. They created open looks and converted them too well. They were the direct antithesis of the Warriors who began Game 1, and did not let up even as the margin became the seventh-largest in conference final history, and the final total tied for fourth.
Oh, and San Antonio doesn’t do a good job of replacing their two best players when confronted with the previous paragraph. Or, according to head coach Gregg Popovich, when only one player engages with the task before them.
“The only way I can process this is that I think it’s not O’s and X’s or rebounds or turnovers or anything like that,” he said. “I think we’ve maybe felt it too much, Kawhi (Leonard) being gone, in the sense that, as I watched, I don’t think they believed . . . I don’t think they started with a belief, and it showed in the lack of edge, intensity, grunts, all that sort of thing. When you’re playing a team that’s as good as Golden State, you’re going to get embarrassed if that’s the way you come out.”
The only player he exempted from this analysis was Jonathan Simmons, who replaced Leonard in the starting lineup and finished with 22 points in 25 minutes. “He was one of the very few who came to play. Jon was great, on both ends of the floor, he was intense and he came to win for sure.”
But the fact that Simmons stood nearly alone was only San Antonio’s issue for one night. The more compelling truth is that the Warriors have pressed their post-Leonard advantage, outscoring the Spurs, 194-133, putting math to not only the matter of belief but the different in present talent levels as well.
“It’s funny you mention that,” said Stephen Curry (29/7/7 in 30 minutes), whose pull-up three seven minutes into the game gave the Warriors a double-digit lead that only bloated as time went on. “I was watching them right before the game, at the National Anthem, and they were having fun, pretty light on their feet, the normal pregame get-hyped moment. It looked like they were all in tune. But when the game starts it’s who wants to grab that momentum early and set the tone for the game, and I think we did that a little bit better tonight.”
So maybe the answer to the night’s most ridiculed question was 2:28 into the game, when Zaza Pachulia cut to the basket and dunked over nobody, or maybe it was Klay Thompson’s open-look 20-footer a minute later, or Curry’s second three with 4:52 left in the first that gave the Warriors their first double-digit lead. Pick a shot, any shot. The game came and went almost too quickly for the human eye, and the rest of the night was just a matter of waiting for the Inevitable Express to pull into the station.
That pace of domination by Golden State likely cannot be maintained as the series heads to Texas, nor does it need to be. The mesmerizing effect of style points is always greater than their true value.
But Golden State’s style is defined largely by its use of defense and pace, which it lacked through much of Game 1. Seeing its effects in Game 2 have probably refreshed in their heads the easiest way to, in Curry’s words, “to avoid getting into bad habits and keep our feet on the gas pedal.”
At this point, the likelihood is that this series will not see the light of next weekend. Popovich may get the belief he is looking for this weekend in San Antonio, but belief alone falls well short of the standard required to beat these Warriors. Belief can prevent this level of embarrassment, but in its present state San Antonio clearly struggles to master Golden State’s multiplicity of weapons.