If it appears the San Antonio Spurs took a step back in Game 4 after their domination in Game 3, it’s because four games into the series both teams are right back where they started.
The Game 1 the Golden State Warriors gave away was given right back by the Spurs in Game 4, blowing an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter in what will now be known as the "Mother’s Day Meltdown." The series is once again tied at two apiece, with the Spurs retaining home court advantage in what amounts to a best-of-three series.
As wasted an opportunity as Game 4 seems, the San Antonio Spurs do not return home without a few lessons gleaned from the first four games of the series.
“We’re disappointed by what we did today,” Tim Duncan said. “But we’re in a position to go ahead and win this one at home. Hopefully we can get two in a row and finish it.”
The adjustments between Games 2 and 3 still appear to be in place and tilting the series in the Spurs favor as much as their poor shooting percentages have tried to balance out that advantage.
After all, jump shots come and go but defensive effort is something far easier to maintain.
And the Spurs are defending well enough, limiting the Golden State Warriors below 40 percent shooting in two games at Oakland’s notoriously difficult Oracle Arena. Stephen Curry dragging around a busted ankle helps, but so have the Spurs adjustments in the series.
After scoring 29 points on 11-18 shooting in the first half of Game 2, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has designated Kawhi Leonard’s defensive talents to Thompson almost exclusively. Since the second half of Game 2, when Popovich made the adjustment, Thompson has shot a combined 14-41 (34 percent).
The Spurs have dulled Curry’s impact through a combination of Danny Green and having one big man extending their defense beyond the three-point line on hedges while keeping another prepared to challenge at the rim.
The lone exploitable matchup the Spurs have ceded is Harrison Barnes in the mid-post on a point guard. It’s hardly ideal, but shading help to the spot on the floor distorts a defense far less than doing so out at the three-point line.
With the exception of a Thompson’s 29-point half, and a 22-point third quarter scoring binge, the Warriors offense has largely been more manageable than explosive. The problem now exists on the other end, where the Spurs are failing to capitalize on open shots.
“[Both teams] played great defense, and in overtime we just stopped scoring,” Manu Ginobili said. “We kept running the same plays, our usual stuff, and shots didn’t fall. In a game that’s so close and so tight, that’s been the difference.”
The Spurs worked through their sets, and even with Parker visibly struggling with his calf injury, the offense managed to work its way to open shots.
Inefficient as long two-pointers are—by no means should an offense live off them—one would expect that the Spurs would make at least a handful of the wide open looks their offense generated from 15-feet out.
Against a defender like Andrew Bogut who promises to fight for every inch of ground on the court, one has to convert on open looks if there is to be any hope for efficiency. Tim Duncan was anything but efficient, shooting 7-22 from the floor and 5-9 from the free throw line.
“Honestly, I had five, six, seven, eight shots that were wide open I feel like I can knock down,” Duncan said. “Just didn’t have the rhythm to make them.”
With three games left this is what the series has become, make shots or miss them.
All cards are now out on the table, whatever wrinkles or nuances to be made have been exposed. The Spurs system is working in that they are generating shots and limiting the Warriors’ most efficient looks. The only thing left unaccounted for is human error; like missing 11 free throws in a game that went to overtime.
“We didn’t make our free throws,” Popovich said. “And I don’t think I’ll be able to watch the film and come up with an answer for that.”
If the first four games were for feeling each other out, which is generally the case in a long series, the last three will be about who can exert their will and step up.
“At this point in the season we are who we are,” Popovich said. “Obviously you give attention to people like Curry and Thompson. [In Game 4] Barnes and Jack were tremendous. Usually in the playoffs teams that win have other people step up.”
It’s not often that an assistant coach is asked to come through in the clutch, but it would mean a lot to the Spurs if shooting guru Chip Engelland could step in an perform some miracles. Because as it stands this is a make or miss series, and if the Spurs are to advance another round they cannot afford to miss so many open opportunities.