By going big and dominating the glass, the Oklahoma City Thunder started to draw the blueprint in last season’s Western Conference Finals of how to beat the Golden State Warriors, and the Cleveland Cavaliers perfected it. The Warriors didn’t do anything to address it this offseason, and the San Antonio Spurs — particularly LaMarcus Aldridge — took advantage of their size to beat the Warriors 129-100 on Tuesday night.
The Thunder’s length — with Steven Adams at center, Serge Ibaka at the 4 and Kevin Durant as a 7-footer with spider limbs running around the court — helped defang the Warriors’ awesome offense. Of course, the Thunder ended up getting in their own way and blowing it, but the Cavaliers were able to take some of those lessons and use them to beat the Warriors in the NBA Finals.
The Cavaliers put Stephen Curry through pick-and-rolls, pressured the rim, won the rebounding battle and made sure that when the Warriors went small, they would pay for it. As a result, Golden State couldn’t go to the “Death Lineup” for extended minutes, and with Draymond Green’s suspension and Andrew Bogut’s injury, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving partied at the rim for the final three games of the series.
This summer, the Warriors did what they had to do. They signed Kevin Durant when Durant said he was down to play in Oakland.
But in doing so they didn’t address their main weakness. In fact, they got worse. After signing Durant, they also let Bogut go in exchange for the cheaper and not-as-good Zaza Pachulia. The Warriors could have really used Bogut in the last two games of the Finals. What he covered up for on defense the last two seasons isn’t appreciated enough.
The Warriors also let Festus Ezeli go in free agency. What was a deep position is suddenly occupied by a veteran (I’m being nice. I could also say “washed up”) group of Pachulia, Anderson Varejao, JaVale McGee and David West.
Pachulia, the starter, is particularly slow on defense. Green is the main backup, as the Warriors go small when Pachulia isn’t in. The Warriors had to break the emergency glass and unleash Varejao and McGee to try to find an answer to Aldridge, who dominated with 26 points and 14 rebounds (eight offensive) in 35 minutes.
Aldridge — not known as a dominating offensive rebounder — used his size to dominate the glass and create second chance opportunities for the Spurs. Of his eight offensive rebounds, six of them were contested, three of which he grabbed over at least two Warriors, per NBA.com’s tracking data. Aldridge pulled in an insane 57 percent of the contested rebounds he was involved in.
In one game, Aldridge built on what the Thunder bigs were able to do against the Warriors in the conference finals. He used his substantial size and strength advantage to get his position in the paint:
Aldridge wasn’t even at the free throw line by the time Kawhi Leonard put up his shot. Between the time the shot went up and bounced off the rim, Aldridge muscled his way past Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Pachulia to get the tip in.
This isn’t an issue of not boxing out, either. Thompson got switched onto Aldridge and didn’t stand a chance. Because Golden State switches everything, Pachulia and Durant were on other wings while Green was pulled away from the basket defending Leonard’s jumper. This is the risk Golden State takes when switching and going small, and Aldridge exploited it with effort and strength.
And this is just comical:
Green, runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year last season, played good defense — no, great defense — here. Green, with all his strength, didn’t give an inch to Aldridge after he got the ball. But it was too late. Aldridge already had the ball in a preferred spot. He then turned around for the jumper, with the ball a foot over the outstretched arms of Green at its release point.
Aldridge is a uniquely efficient post scorer, one most NBA teams don’t have. But the teams just below the Warriors at the summit of the Western Conference — the Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers — both feature two of the best scoring bigs in the game.
It’s just one game, and the Spurs won the game for more reasons than just Aldridge (they shot 50 percent from three-point range compared to just 21.2 percent for Golden State), but it’s no doubt an issue for Steve Kerr; one he has 81 games to figure out how to fix after the team didn’t find a solution this summer.