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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Warriors Overwhelm Shorthanded Spurs 129-115, Complete Record-Setting Third Straight 4-0 Sweep

The Golden State Warriors advanced to their third straight NBA Finals after defeating the San Antonio Spurs 129-115 to complete their third consecutive four game sweep in the 2017 playoffs. The Warriors are the first team to advance to the Finals with a 12-0 record, though the 1989 Lakers and the 2001 Lakers each went 11-0 en route to the Finals when the first round was a best of five series. No NBA team has ever survived an entire playoff season without a loss; the 1983 76ers (12-1) and the 2001 Lakers (15-1) are the only NBA teams to make it through the postseason with just one loss.

The Warriors' one-two punch of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant has been impressive throughout this 12-0 run and particularly so versus the Spurs. Curry averaged 31.5 ppg and 4.8 apg in the Western Conference Finals while shooting .564 from the field (including .467 from three point range) and Durant averaged 29.8 ppg and 7.3 rpg while shooting .603 from the field (including .409 from three point range). Curry tallied 36 points on 14-24 field goal shooting in the closeout game, while Durant added 29 points on blistering 10-13 field goal shooting.

It is worth noting that the Warriors are undefeated with Interim Head Coach Mike Brown at the helm. Fools will say that anyone could coach a team that is this talented but the reality--without calling out any names in particular--is that pro basketball history is littered with the names of coaches who did not win as much as they could have or should have despite being blessed with talented rosters. Brown's coaching acumen is underrated by most media members, though within the coaching fraternity and among knowledgeable basketball observers his skills are understood.

Before commenting any further about the Warriors, it must be mentioned that a dirty play altered--at the very least--the duration of this series, if not the outcome; the Spurs enjoyed a lead of as much as 25 points in game one before Zaza Pachulia took away Kawhi Leonard's landing space on a jump shot, resulting in Leonard reinjuring the ankle that he had sprained in the previous round versus the Houston Rockets. With Leonard out of action for the rest of the series, the Spurs promptly blew their game one lead, played like a disheartened team in game two and then fought hard for most of games three and four despite clearly not having enough talent on the court to ultimately prevail. There is a game plan to beat the Warriors, as I noted in my Western Conference Finals preview, but it is not clear if any team has both the necessary talent and the game plan discipline to execute this plan over the entire course of a seven game series; what is clear is that the Spurs understood that game plan and were executing it very well in game one before Leonard's injury. We will never know if the Spurs would have pulled off the upset but before anyone crowns the Warriors as the greatest team of all-time it should be remembered that this series could have had a different outcome--and that is even more true considering that the Spurs' lost starting point guard Tony Parker to a season-ending injury in the previous series versus Houston.

Pachulia's play was unquestionably dirty. I have played organized basketball for over 35 years, albeit not at the professional level, and I can say without question that I know where my feet (and hands and elbows) are. I might slap at the ball and hit someone's arm by accident but I have never slid my foot underneath a shooter because that would be a dangerous and deliberate action that could cause a serious injury. ESPN's Jalen Rose addressed this issue directly, admitting that he intentionally injured Kobe Bryant during the 2000 NBA Finals and noting that such a move is never accidental. San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich, understandably upset by the loss of his MVP candidate under such circumstances, publicly blasted Pachulia but Popovich is not the best spokesman to deliver this message; in fact, Popovich's comments seem hollow and hypocritical in light of the fact that for years he defended similar actions by his ace defender Bruce Bowen. If as a coach you encourage or at least tolerate dirty play then it is hard to credibly take the moral high ground on that subject.

Switching our focus back to the Warriors, the NBA Finals will not start until June 1, so there is plenty of time to engage in endless discussions about where this team ranks among the greatest squads in pro basketball history. The first thing to note is the phrase trademarked by Scottie Pippen and Ron Harper after the 1996 Bulls went 72-10: Don't Mean a Thing Without the Ring. If you are not the best team in a given season then it is doubtful that you are one of the greatest teams of all-time.

Assuming for the sake of discussion that the Warriors win the championship, that would be their second title in three years after setting several records for regular season wins. That is impressive but not unprecedented, as the Shaq-Kobe Lakers won three titles in a row, the Jordan-Pippen Bulls notched two three-peats sandwiched around Jordan's minor league baseball career and Bill Russell's Celtics won eight championships in a row. The Warriors have the two most recent regular season MVPs on their roster (Durant 2014, Curry 2015-16), a distinction matched only by the 1983 76ers (Moses Malone 1982, Julius Erving 1981). Malone won the 1983 MVP as well, but neither Durant nor Curry will receive the 2017 honor as they are not among the three MVP finalists recently announced by the league. In addition to their MVP power duo, the Warriors also have two All-Star level players (Klay Thompson, Draymond Green) plus a former All-Star who won the 2015 Finals MVP (Andre Iguodala); in this sense the Warriors are like a throwback team, even though their playing style is new: in the early to mid-1980s, the league's best teams (Lakers, Celtics, 76ers) were routinely stacked with multiple All-Stars and former All-Stars. This is much less commonplace today, perhaps a symptom of expansion (both in terms of number of teams and roster sizes) diluting the league's talent.

The bottom line is that the Warriors are great, they are fun to watch and they deserve a lot of praise but based on the eye test I cannot see them beating the star-studded teams of yesteryear, as I indicated in an earlier series preview article about the Warriors. I like Kevin McHale's line about Draymond Green: "That guy could not grow enough to guard me." The Lakers, Celtics and 76ers from the 1980s loved to play at a fast pace--and had players who could make three pointers, though that was not in vogue during that era--but they also could slow the game down and pound the ball inside to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish-Kevin McHale and Moses Malone respectively. The combination of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge looked pretty strong versus the Warriors in game one of the Western Conference Finals, so I would take my chances with Magic-Kareem, Bird-Parish-McHale or Julius Erving-Moses Malone. The 1990s Bulls did not have a low post dreadnought but Jordan-Pippen-Harper comprised the greatest perimeter defensive trio ever assembled on one roster, while Dennis Rodman likely would have baited the hotheaded Draymond Green into getting suspended.

Meanwhile, in the other bracket the Cleveland Cavaliers seemed poised to match Golden State's 12-0 playoff mark before suffering what was most likely a one game aberration versus the Boston Celtics. The Cavaliers not only have a three-headed monster of star power with LeBron James-Kyrie Irving-Kevin Love but they also have tremendous depth, with multiple former All-Stars coming off of the bench (Deron Williams, Kyle Korver) plus numerous veterans who understand and thrive in their roles. No NBA team in recent memory has been as deep as these Cavaliers and certainly no team that has three All-Stars has been this deep since at least the aforementioned elite teams from the 1980s, when former MVPs like Bob McAdoo and Bill Walton came off of the bench for championship squads.

It will be interesting to see how the 2017 playoffs conclude but my preliminary thoughts about the historical comparisons are that the Warriors and Cavaliers deserve high rankings on the all-time lists but not necessarily the very highest rankings; if you contracted the NBA by nearly 200 players (by folding seven teams to bring the total back to 23 and by limiting the rosters to 12 players instead of 15) it is unlikely that the Warriors and Cavaliers would be dominating to quite the extent that they are currently dominating.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:32 AM



At Tuesday, May 23, 2017 9:51:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Pop could not have less of a leg to stand on. Bowen may well be the dirtiest player to ever play the game and Pop was complicit in his thuggery for a decade. Absolute hypocrisy.

No player deserves to be injured, but if any team deserves to have players injured, particularly by that play, it is 100% the San Antonio Spurs.

At Tuesday, May 23, 2017 10:49:00 PM, Anonymous JT said...

they just don't feel as dominant to me as the other all-time greats. they rank as an all-time team, of course, mainly from sheer talent alone but have not been tested this year in the playoffs. and when they were being tested, they sent in the goon (Zaza) to take care of the problem. when the Cavs beat them in 6 this will be understood.

At Tuesday, May 23, 2017 11:25:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

While I agree coach Pop got "karma strikes back" moment, I think any such play should be punished with ban till the end of playoffs, effectively end of season for dirty player. As such it's on NBA, not coaches. And I'm amazed, because it's hurtful for prestige and money, injured players have to be treated instead of playing and sometimes it jeopardizes their careers, even if only(?) by diminishing their abilities.

At Wednesday, May 24, 2017 7:29:00 PM, Anonymous JT said...

let me ask you David, kind of OT but I'm still interested since I know you're a big Kobe guy, as am I. many people are saying now that there is no argument for Kobe over LeBron when it comes to the pantheon or ranking all-time. where are you on this? strictly on the merits, I believe Bron is the best all-around player to ever play, but as a scorer and competitor I want Kobe.

At Tuesday, May 30, 2017 10:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I discuss this a bit in my just posted Finals preview. I don't completely trust LeBron in the clutch, so I can't take him ahead of Jordan--and I would apply the same reasoning to Kobe versus LeBron.


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