The Spurs' dominant Game 6 victory over Houston in the semifinals is still fresh, but there's no time to linger in the moment. The Western Conference Finals series between the Spurs and the Warriors begins Sunday, and it features a clash of the two best teams in the NBA, record-wise, this season.
The Spurs are without Tony Parker, while the Warriors have so far swept through and are massive favorites. Still, this will be the Warriors' toughest challenge yet this season, and provides a terrific undercard to the Finals main event everyone is expecting. Don't expect the Spurs to go down without a fight. What that means, of course, is up for some debate.
Here's a look at the most important Spurs and Warriors players in the Western Conference Finals, ranked from least important to most important.
He's hurt, and young. Not a great combination for hopes of him appearing in his first playoff game. He has yet to log a minute in these playoffs.
Role: Veteran good dude
Look, you can make all the jokes you want, but Joel Anthony has two championship rings and has made nearly $23 million in his career. So no, he's probably not going to play unless it's the most garbage of garbage times in this series. But you should probably put some respect on that name.
Role: Paid spectator
If you see Damian Jones, something has gone horribly wrong.
Role: Sure, he's a guy
Sure, he's a guy that exists.
Role: "Break glass in case of emergency" big
You know, I really thought McAdoo was going to be something at North Carolina. And it turns out, he is something -- he's an NBA champion with pretty good odds of getting another ring. But if you're seeing a lot of him, again, something has gone terribly wrong and we should be concerned for the Warriors. Although ... Steve Kerr, who is still advising the Warriors as he continues his treatment, has always liked playing veteran bigs in these series, and McAdoo is now technically a veteran big ...
Role: Last-ditch-effort offensive weapon
Bertans saw some spotty minutes early against the Rockets before the Spurs switched to a tighter rotation as the series went on. He's big and can shoot. Popovich opted to go more and more towards defense as the series went on, because he felt those lineups could score enough. It's not inconceivable to think that Bertans could land more in the lineup if Popovich just feels they can't generate enough offensive firepower, which is likely, especially if he actually goes small more, which is always a tough question for the Spurs.
Role: Snoopy napping on the doghouse
Dedmon appears to be in Popovich's doghouse, a surprising development given how valuable his defense and athleticism are, particularly against the Warriors. Don't be shocked if he doesn't get serious time in this series. However, if Popovich is left with no option for whatever reason -- injury, the other bigs simply can't keep pace with the Warriors, etc.-- Dedmon can contribute. He's fiery and emotional -- he was actually the first Spur ejected from a playoff game in a decade against the Rockets. That could work to fire up the Spurs ... or it could work to fire up Draymond Green. That's a tenuous line to walk. Dedmon is a last resort on the back line, which is disappointing because the eye test and metrics say San Antonio might have a better chance with him on the floor.
Role: Professional instigator
You know Matt Barnes. He's there to make open 3s, yell from the bench, and get into unnecessary altercations with everyone. Barnes is more relaxed on this squad -- you can't have two Draymond Greens-- but he's a competitor who can defend at a high level still. He won't play much on account of depth, but he's been in these moments before and knows what it takes. Barnes' brand of toughness isn't really necessary against the Spurs; San Antonio won't try to punk anyone. But in the event of an injury he can fill in minutes and hit shots.
Role: Bench lightning
Another youngster who's probably not quite ready for this moment, McCaw is a rookie but shows great promise as a shooter and speedy wing who can get up and down the floor. Still, McCaw has played more minutes than JaVale McGee, and is part of the rotation -- he's earned it. The question will be if he can maintain defensive discipline against the Spurs' bench wings, particularly Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili. Ginobili in particular will be a fascinating matchup, given he's 39, but brings so much more craftiness. McCaw is about to learn a great deal in this series.
Role: Placeholder wing
"Slo-Mo" is what they call him, and for good reason. Anderson is a sloth-like wing, who lacks explosiveness and anything resembling speed, despite a lithe frame. How is that kind of player going to match up against the Warriors' wings? Anderson's height could be a significant boon for the Spurs, as they need wings with length to get into the eyesight of the Warriors' tall and deadly shooters. You can't just have Patty Mills guarding Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, trying to disrupt them. Anderson has some playmaking ability, but it's hard to peg exactly what he does well. If he can find something in this series to soundly contribute, that will help the Spurs considerably -- if only in limited minutes.
Role: Tradecraft asset
Lee was unplayable against the Rockets, and it's likely to be more of the same against Golden State. Popovich tried starting Lee to begin the series with the Rockets, and Houston ran them off the floor. He brings Pau Gasol's lack of mobility and defensive liabilities, but without the size. Lee is still a good rebounder, however, and there's a chance Popovich might find more minutes for him if he continues to go big (which would likely be a disaster) and wants to counter Draymond Green, the player that took Lee's minutes and role in Golden State.
Lee will likely provide some intel on the Warriors and what they want to do, but that's only going to prove so valuable; the Spurs know what's coming, it's not a secret. Stopping it is the problem. A more interesting matchup might be the minutes where Lee shares the floor with David West. Lee has a little better ability to step out and guard from mid-range than Aldridge or Gasol, and the Spurs will need that against David West, who's too physical to leave Kawhi Leonard or Jonathon Simmons on for long stretches, especially with all the wing threats constantly on the floor for Golden State.
Role: Consummate professional
Livingston has slipped in the rotation; it's clear Ian Clark is where they have put their future backup point guard eggs. He's a free agent this summer, so this could be his last run with the team. But Livingston is still valuable. The absence of Tony Parker makes him both more playable and more important in this series. The Spurs have been forced to play more wings, going for stretches without a point guard entirely in Game 5 against Houston.
The Warriors will want to match those lineups with size, and Livingston brings that, along with the ability to keep the game organized, which you need against the Spurs. If your offense is sloppy, the Spurs will tear you to shreds, and that's something which, despite their unbelievable efficiency most of the time, the Warriors can fall victim to. If the Spurs' plan is to play big in this series, Livingston provides a counter when two of Durant, Iguodala, and Thompson are on the bench.
Role: Contract year lightning off the bench
The future backup point guard of the Warriors, Clark has earned more and more playing time his season, and has largely supplanted Livingston for backup point guard minutes -- he has the seventh-most minutes for Golden State in these playoffs. Both fast and quick, with good defensive instincts and another crack shooter on a team already blessed with an embarrassment of riches on the perimeter, Clark is going to be an issue for the Spurs, on top of, you know, all the other guys above him on this list.
He'll have his handle challenged defensively in a way he probably didn't really see in the first two rounds, and like McCaw, will be getting a lesson in all the random, crafty things Manu Ginobili pulls off. He'll also have to chase Patty Mills around the perimeter. But he'll also have opportunities to make shots with how the Spurs will be forced to send help constantly at the big threats.
Role: Baby dropped into the pool to learn to swim
Hey, kid! Welcome to the NBA playoffs! You're now checking Steph Curry! Good luck! Murray is a good player with a bright future. He's long and athletic, the kind of guard the Spurs simply have not had in ... well, decades. He was inserted as starter against the Rockets, and Patrick Beverley proceeded to pick him apart. But Popovich didn't bench him entirely, and in time he settled in nicely.
There are issues on both sides for Murray in this series, obviously. He's inexperienced, which means he's going to make mistakes on the perimeter guarding the Splash Brothers, and they'll punish him for almost all of them. Against the Rockets, those mistakes were mitigated by Houston's limited playmaking ability outside of James Harden and by their reluctance to launch contested 3s after Game 4. The Warriors will carry no such hindrance. They'll launch over him if he's a step slow or fails to keep a hand up, and drive past him if he over-commits. Meanwhile, offensively, the Spurs go to pieces if he's primary ball-handler. The offense just isn't organized, and that's a problem against the Warriors' defense. He'll have to be paired with another guard with experience most times.
Role: Manu Freaking Ginobili
Man, legends never die. Ginobili is 39 freaking years old, and still gave the Spurs great minutes against the Rockets, including basically winning Game 5 in large part for them, with an iconic block. It was incredible to see him give Spurs fans that memory. And it's a good thing. Because this is going to be a rough series for him. You've noticed above Ginobili referenced in matchups with the Warriors' youngsters, and there he'll still be able to school them a bit. But he's facing long, athletic players who are premier shooters at their positions.
If he's guarding Klay Thompson, he'll have to chase him through a hundred screens. If it's Kevin Durant ... yeah, it needs to not be Kevin Durant. If it's Andre Iguodala, he can help a little bit more, and recover to contest on him. But the Warriors will also hunt him down in switches with Stephen Curry, and you're talking about a 39-year-old guarding Stephen Curry. Ginobili has to make offensive plays consistently in this series, and leave everything on the table. Try crazy passes. Flop like Warriors contact is heavy artillery. They need every inexplicable Manu point they can muster.
Role: Mid-range assassin, cunning safety valve
West is playing more and more a part of the rotation and has been lights out the last few months, finding his groove with the Warriors in Kevin Durant's injury absence. Against San Antonio, he's going to be in an interesting spot. If he manages to battle inside and keep them from dominating the offensive glass, he'll be a huge plus as he finds cutters and dices up the Spurs' tough defense. But if the Spurs can press up on him with their size to contest the mid-range and interrupt passing lanes, or work him over on the offensive glass, forcing the Warriors to go small and ... wait, that's not good, either. Anyway, if West is having a great series, it's very likely the Warriors are dominating.
Role: Emergency offense/human barricade
You don't know what you're going to get from Gasol minute to minute at this point in his career. One second, he's blocking shots inside without leaving his feet, making sound decisions, hitting 3s here and there, and getting tip-ins. The next he's getting exposed in perimeter containment, racking up fouls, or missing short-range jumpers. Believe this: the only way the Spurs win this series is if Gasol gives them something on the offensive end, which he can still do. The Warriors will likely dare him to beat them, and the future Hall of Famer still has some tricks on that end. The problem is that the Warriors are likely to hunt him down with switches both on and off ball. Gasol wasn't targeted as much by the Rockets, but the Warriors are more disciplined in exposing weaknesses.
The other issue for Gasol is JaVale McGee. He's athletic and can hit the lob from way out. When the Rockets had success, a lot of it was getting Clint Capela going on dunks. The Spurs figured out how to disrupt the pass enough to force Capela to bring the ball down, at which point they mercilessly attacked his handle and forced turnovers. McGee will just keep the ball high and likely finish over the Spurs' bigs. Gasol has to figure out how to curtail that while also, you know, stopping perimeter containment and not losing any of the shooters he winds up with responsibility for.
Role: Pro muscle
Why is he more important than better players behind him? Simple. The Spurs are going to go big, and while the Warriors' Death Star lineup (Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Durant-Green) has only played 29 minutes in the playoffs, that tension will be a big deal. However, the Warriors have always preferred to use that lineup as a scalpel and not a hacksaw. Which means a lot of the time, they're going to use big lineups -- which means a lot of the time Pachulia will be tasked with beating the Spurs' bigs. If you beat them to rebounds and push them out of post position, the Spurs' weaponry is severely downgraded.
Pachulia was brought in for pretty much this exact series. The Warriors have the luxury of not having to go towards one play style to counter the Spurs, like the Rockets did. They can beat you with small ball, and beat you playing big. Pachulia is key there.
Role: Seven-minute Godzilla stir fry
And yet, Pachulia may not be as important as McGee in this series. Pachulia will play more minutes, most likely. But when McGee comes in, all hell breaks loose. With McGee on the floor, the Warriors are a plus-37 per 100 possessions. He plays limited minutes, comes in, wrecks everything, and then departs. He's their special ability in the video game. They save it up through sound play and typical playoff basketball, and then they unleash McGee for a few minutes, he blocks everything, dunks on everything, and then vanishes. He's like Godzilla. Most of the movie you don't even see him, and then he comes out and it's awesome, before retreating back into the sea.
Role: Firebug guard
Mills has a huge amount of responsibility on his shoulders, and the cards are stacked against him in this series. Steph Curry shoots over small defenders like they're not even there. He famously did this against the Nuggets in 2013 and Ty Lawson to start this Warriors' team's postseason run. So he almost can't guard Curry. But he also can't guard the other guards, because they're all bigger. Mills is a great on-ball defender and can hang with Curry around screens, but he just can't bother him. You need length and muscle, and Mills doesn't have enough of either.
On the other end, he's got to make 3s consistently, and he's likely to garner some tough individual assignments because of that. Mills got loose against the Rockets because Houston was always chasing turnovers and help defense, and losing him off-ball. The Warriors are profoundly more disciplined. That said, one thing Mills can do is run Curry around screens to wear him out on defense. Mills is inexhaustible, what I call a firebug guard, and he can hit 3s if the Warriors don't lock in. The Spurs need a huge series from Mills.
Role: Bow of the good ship Spurs
Whew, boy. OK, Aldridge in these playoffs is doing that thing when you're on a balance beam and starting to lose you balance so you speed up to try and stay on until the end. That's how his season is going. He's clearly off-balance and starting to slide off, but instead he pushed through against the Rockets, came up big in Games 5 and 6, and helped win them the series. He is going to have to do the same. The Warriors are unlikely to worry much about Aldridge. He'll draw the best defender in the league, Draymond Green, and they'll dare him to beat them with his low-efficiency shots. Against Aldridge this year, the Warriors actually helped off him in space, with Green pursuing pressure and feeling comfortable letting Aldridge roam free in pick and pops, knowing he could recover on him without fear of Aldridge exploding to the rim.
The reality is this: If Aldridge is hitting those turnaround and pick and pop jumpers, if he's getting put-backs, if he's doing what he does, he's going to point the Spurs in the right direction. If not, they are screwed. Aldridge was a minus in both Spurs losses to Houston (a minus-45) and a plus in all four wins. It's not so much to say the Spurs go as Aldridge does -- the system still drives the Spurs -- but Aldridge always points towards where they're headed, good or bad.
Role: LeBronathon Simmons
Jonathon Simmons' shooting splits for field goal-3-point-free throws in the regular season: 42-29-75.
Jonathon Simmons' shooting splits in the playoffs: 49-33-65.
Go figure. Simmons, of course, had a monster season opener versus the Warriors, scoring 20 points in 28 minutes. He played less than a minute in the Spurs' third and final game against the Warriors, a loss. Simmons made for a great opening night story, settled in as a role player, then faded out of the rotation entirely. But with Tony Parker's injury stressing the wings, and the Rockets' small-ball rotations forcing Gregg Popovich out of his comfort zone in using two bigs, Simmons re-emerged and had a monster impact in the Spurs' win over Houston.
Simmons is pivotal. He's big enough to battle Draymond Green, and brings athleticism, which always gives Golden State some fits. He's long and a good defender, so he can spend some time guarding Kevin Durant, giving Kawhi Leonard whatever rest only having to guard Klay Thompson provides. Simmons won't be effective -- it's Kevin Durant -- but he'll make him work. Simmons is able to track the ball in transition and not give up easy plays, and has shown an insane ability to get to the rim and finish in these playoffs. It may be temporary, but the Spurs need to ride it. They need his versatility in this series, badly.
Role: Ball-hawking sharpshooter
Danny Green may actually be the most underrated player in NBA history. He's on the list, no matter what. Green earns more of Popovich's tirades than any other player at this point, and yet Popovich also knows that without Green, they can't survive. Green got beat, often, against the Rockets. But he just comes back and makes another play.
He's long and athletic, and is one of the best perimeter defenders on the planet. He's a one-man curtain in transition. He's going to chase Steph Curry off screens and go over on pick and rolls and stay with him enough to make sure Curry feels him. It may not matter; it's Steph. But if the Spurs are going to have any chance in this series, Green has to knock down 3s consistently and come up with enough deflections to bother Curry. He's their one weapon against the Splash Brothers. Leonard can contain in isolation, but put him in a pick and roll and you'll miss Green's speed. Green's also going to have to handle the ball quite a bit in this series with how much length and athleticism the Spurs need.
They need 2013's near-Finals-MVP Danny Green for this series, from Game 1 all the way through.
Role: The Metronome
Iguodala is the "pull cord if you lose control of the vehicle" option. He calms things down on offense and defense. His role has reduced somewhat, predictably, with Durant's arrival, but he's still hugely valuable. He's not the guy who's going to shut down LeBron like he was two years ago, but he can make life difficult on any player, even Kawhi Leonard, for long stretches. He's still athletic, still quick, and he's at a point in his career where every 50/50 call is going to go his way.
But he may be most valuable in this series for his offense. The Spurs are probably going to dare Iguodala to beat them. If he knocks down spot-up 3-pointers, it only opens up more for the rest of the Warriors. If he misses, the Spurs get to dictate pace. You know how Simmons is so valuable for the Spurs? Well, when Durant or Green is checking Leonard, that means Iguodala can attack Simmons. What's worse, with so many of the Spurs' wings limited threats, Iguodala can freelance and help off more, which is only going to make things worse for the Spurs offensively. There are a wide variety of ways Iguodala can muck up the Spurs on both ends.
Role: Human torch
Thompson is this low on the list only because if the Spurs somehow contain the other Warriors on this list and Thompson goes for 30, they'll live with that. They still have to worry about him, lest he goes off for 60 (which is why he's so high), but at some point you just have to live with guys scoring, and the Spurs know that. Thompson might be a bigger problem on the defensive end. He's up to taking on the challenge of guarding Leonard for stretches if nothing else is working, and his length is going to bother Danny Green on closeouts.
Thompson's also hugely valuable as a closer. Let's say the Spurs are hanging around in Game 2. They've mucked up the flow, the Warriors' energy has been bad, whatever. Thompson can just rise and fire over good defense, hit three 3-pointers, and thanks for coming, see you in Texas with a 2-0 lead. Thompson is basically the human definition of "an embarrassment of riches" at this point.
Role: Basketball cannibal, human adrenaline injection
Green is, of course, the best defensive player in the league. He's also hitting his 3s right now, which makes him a huge pain to deal with. His rabble-rousing, motivational, take-a-slight-from-anything approach is muted here, because everyone respects the Spurs too much to ever get into that with them. But his actual basketball talents will be huge. The Spurs learned against the Rockets that they have to give up certain things and gamble against pace-and-space teams, and Green is likely a player they'll dare to beat them with the 3. Aldridge was able to contain Trevor Ariza off the dribble. Whether Green is better of worse in such a situation is irrelevant. If Aldridge plays back, and Green regresses to the mean, the Warriors will have more difficulty getting into the rhythm they need.
As described above, he'll help off Aldridge more than you'd expect and force him to the baseline turnaround at every opportunity in the post. The secret with the Warriors has always been that if you win the Draymond matchup, you beat the Warriors.
But no one wins that matchup.
Role: T-800 Model 101, cybernetic organism. Living tissue over metal endoskeleton
First thing's first, Leonard's not 100 percent. He's expected to play in Game 1, but any injury that would keep him out of the closing minutes of a close Game 5 knotted 2-2 at home -- and then completely out of an elimination Game 6 -- is significant. Leonard showed no signs of injury before Game 6, making his absence all the more unexpected. Nonetheless, he's had an extra three days of rest and will be ready.
In short, the Spurs need an absolutely legendary series from Leonard. They need him to be the guy he was against Memphis in the first round, and to disrupt Stephen Curry and/or Kevin Durant, while limiting his turnovers and playing 40-plus minutes per game.
Durant won their playoff matchup last year, at both ends. Leonard has ben better than ever this year ... but so has Durant. Durant will have more energy, and he's got more help. Leonard will bring the ball up to initiate offense, typically have the toughest defensive assignment, and oh, the Warriors will probably throw multiple guys at him as well.
If Leonard wants to be regarded as the best player in the league, that starts with this series.
Role: Omega forward
Durant has coverage on the offensive end thanks to the weapons around him and will get to pick his spots in guarding Leonard. Meanwhile, pick and roll with him and Curry, should the Warriors run it more, will still negate any scheme the Spurs may have in place other than "send the farm."
Durant won his matchup with Leonard last year. He can get to his spots still, and is capable of switching onto any Spur they put on the floor. Durant's size means he can handle Aldridge if necessary, contain the guards, smother the wings -- anything that's called for.
Durant can also just take games over on both ends, and will. The Spurs know this, but there's also not a lot they can do about it, not when he's on this team.
Role: Human cheat code
If Curry's making his shots, it's over. The Spurs have the best defense in the NBA? Doesn't matter if Curry's hitting. You can flank him with help, and that just means the rest of the Warriors have a mini-fast-break. Danny Green's great at covering through screens? Curry can pull up in transition from 35 feet.
Curry will do good work defensively -- this matchup favors him. But he's also a talent that the Spurs simply can't account for. He's too good, too logic-defying, too system-disrupting offensively to build a plan to stop him. They can survive a big game from Thompson. They can even live with a tough, but great game from Durant. But if Curry has a special performance, it's scorched earth. We'll see if Popovich has a plan that hasn't been tried yet, starting with Game 1 in Oakland on Sunday.