5 things we learned from Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

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Game 1 of this year’s Western Conference Finals was a doozy, to say the least. In order to make sense of things going forward, here are five takeaways from Golden State’s 113–111 win on Sunday.

San Antonio wants to make Golden State’s stars defend

Judging by Game 1, the Spurs are taking a page out of Cleveland’s playbook against Golden State. In last year’s Finals, the Cavaliers went at Stephen Curry time and time again, making him exert a ton of energy on that end. On Sunday, San Antonio ran a similar strategy on Kevin Durant and Draymond Green, posting up LaMarcus Aldridge on the two forwards often.

The Warriors defense is most effective when its rampant switching nullifies actions and high I.Q. defenders like Durant, Green and Klay Thompson are able to force mistakes during the scramble. Making Durant and Green work down low accomplishes a few things. First, it slows the game to a halt, a win for San Antonio against the run-and-gun Dubs. With Green, it keeps him away from being the free safety demon he is against other match-ups. Durant is not well equipped to deal with Aldridge and can expose himself to foul trouble. Turnovers, a must-avoid against the Warriors, are less likely when the offense is simplified to this degree, and it’s also tiring having to deal with San Antonio’s brute.

The success of this strategy is entirely dependent on how Aldridge does. In Game 1, he put up 28 points. Good! On 11–24 shooting. Meh! And six turnovers. His postseason efficiency as a whole has dipped from the regular season, but pumping out a really good series isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. The Spurs can’t run the same strategy on Curry, as with Tony Parker out, none of their guards are major offensive threats.

Rebounding is going to be big

A key reason the Spurs took a big lead in Game 1 and nearly pulled the upset? Rebounding. At face value, having Aldridge and Pau Gasol out there against Golden State’s smaller, more modern frontcourts looks like a disadvantage. But controlling the boards helps rein in Golden State’s overwhelming offense and grants San Antonio added opportunities.

Such was the case in the first half, when the Spurs collected 44.4% of available offensive rebounds and 57.5% of total rebounds. San Antonio went into halftime up 20. Things turned around in the second half, but Gregg Popovich’s squad can still stay alive in this series if they make use of their size. If Kawhi Leonard returns and stays healthy, and we see some Dewayne Dedmon, San Antonio can steal a game on the glass.

Thompson is getting his looks

Mark it down: Thompson’s winning a game for the Warriors at some point in this series. Weird thing to proclaim after a 2-for-11 clunker, but going through each of those shots tells a larger tale. We’re talking multiple wide open lay-ups missed and 20-foot gimmies that are usually automatic for him. He even passed up a few money looks.

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Thompson has been oddly poor during the playoffs, with sub-40% shooting from the field and sub-37% shooting from deep. But he’s still the guy that scored 60 points in a game, 37 in a quarter last season and won Game 6 of last year’s conference finals for the Warriors. Such is the cycle of following Thompson: he’s amazing, then he’s underwhelming for a bit until he does more amazing stuff. Expecting more of the same here, especially given the shots he had in Game 1. The Spurs have a banged up Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to ration between Thompson, Curry and Durant. Which brings us to…

We know who the X-factors are

For the Spurs, it’s Jonathon Simmons. Not an easy label to take on for a guy that’s in his second NBA season after working his way up from a D-League tryout. Unfortunately, such is reality, and San Antonio is lacking in the uber-athletic wing that can hit threes and not shed points defensively department. Simmons isn’t 100% ready to be that yet, but Game 1 suggests he’ll have a chance to be in this series. He defended Curry well for small stretches and made some timely threes.

For the Warriors, it’s Zaza Pachulia. No, I’m not kidding. He’s the anti-Spurs, because he plays exactly their game. Pachulia is perfectly fine with a slog of a basketball game, and is perfectly fine guarding traditional bigs with little mobility. He’s going to old-man-game his way to hurting San Antonio on the boards, in the paint and, as it turns out, literally. He had nine rebounds in Game 1, effectively finished over SA’s bigs and even caught the Spurs sleeping on his passing game.

The Dubs offense needs to belong to Curry

When you land Kevin Durant, it’s difficult to treat him as just another cog in the machine. But what makes the Warriors the Warriors is having Stephen Curry run a high screen with playmakers and finishers around him. Unless he’s hurt and your defense is close to flawless, you’re screwed. With or without Durant, this is true. We saw the Warriors look their best this season when running their offense through Curry.

Game 1 was no different. Curry scored 19 points on 10 shots in the third quarter, when he started getting more pick-and-roll opportunities that left Aldridge and Gasol stuck in quicksand begging for mercy. It was 2016 Curry, pulling up from three and opening up all sorts of offense for his squad. Golden State will likely go to more of this as the series progresses, with good reason.