A familiar foe awaits Warriors in round one

The Warriors start their NBA title defense Saturday, and just like in 2016 they begin that defense against a team who gave them some trouble in the Conference Finals the year prior.

Two years ago it was a first-round matchup with the Houston Rockets, who they dispatched in five games, this season it’ll be the San Antonio Spurs.

Health Questions

Both teams have been hampered by injuries all season, but more importantly it’s been injuries to the star players.

The Spurs have been without Kawhi Leonard for all but nine games. Stephen Curry has suited up for most of the season, but 31 missed games is still troubling.

It has been about the sheer number of injuries for the Warriors as Nick Young is the only player to play at least 80 games, while only David West and Klay Thompson have joined Young in missing less than 10 games. And because of those injuries the Warriors have had to change their style of play to a more Spurs-y approach, side-to-side ball movement, weak-side motions, but also a ton of isos.

Defense First

The Warriors have been a mess defensively down the home stretch of the regular season. It could be explained away as a team that had nothing to play for, but the question is whether they can get back to where they were earlier in the year.

Over their last 10 games they’ve allowed 109.9 points per game, which would have been the sixth worst in the league if extrapolated out for the whole season.

And with Curry out, there’s no guarantee they can rely solely on outscoring teams. They have to be engaged defensively. Draymond Green will assuredly be his normal self, but Kevin Durant is going to be the key on that side of the ball.

Early in the year, Durant had a strong case to be the second Warriors player in a row to win Defensive Player of the Year, but that seems like a lifetime ago as he just hasn’t had the same execution or level of commitment on that end. His defensive rating during the first three months was an impressive 103.4, but over the last four months his rating dropped all the way down to 110.0.

The Warriors are going to need him to revert back to the monstrous two-way player they saw early on, and he’s going to have to do it while continuing to be the team’s anchor on offense as well.

Lineup Chess

Steve Kerr has already said that his starting lineup is going to change depending on the matchup and you can expect his mentor Gregg Popovich to be prepared for this with his own counters.

Popovich has moved Danny Green in and out of the starting lineup, as well as Pau Gasol. But it won’t just be the starting rotations; Popovich has shown that he’s not above playing Hall of Famers Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as little or as much as the situation calls for.

While Kerr is more of a rotation stickler, the one position where he likes to gamble on matchups is the center spot. The starting five for the Warriors likely depends on if Popovich starts Gasol or Kyle Anderson next to LaMarcus Aldridge, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see five different players logging center minutes for the Warriors.

It’s just a matter of which coach will show his hand first. Then, let the adjustments begin.

Matchup to Watch

Kawhi Leonard vs the Spurs training staff

This is the one thing that could throw this first round matchup into chaos. It seems highly unlikely that after sitting out for so long, getting second opinions, dueling news reports and rehabbing away from the team that Leonard would decide, “actually, now I’m ready.”

But you can’t rule out that actually happening. Maybe the Spurs make him some assurances if he gets hurt again, maybe the chance at exacting some revenge on a semi-vulnerable Warriors team is too enticing for him, or maybe he actually feels better.

Whatever the reason, if he does return, it would be trouble for the Warriors — and may actually force them to revisit their own star’s injury timeline.

Most Important Warriors Role Player

Kevon Looney

From first-round bust, to having his fourth-year option declined, to most consistent big man, it’s been a wild ride for Looney.

He may even start in this series, which would have been inconceivable just two months ago. He’s got the length to matchup with Aldridge for a spell or two and is agile enough to close out on either Gasol or Anderson on the perimeter.

This may be the perfect matchup for him as the Spurs don’t have an athletic freak or bulldozer in their big man rotation and that is one of the main things that continues to give Looney problems. But the Spurs’ bigs are actually pretty similar to Looney, slowish foot speed, but long, smart and agile.

It could be a big series for Looney and may be what puts him out of the Warriors price range for next season.

Prediction

Warriors in five, if Leonard continues to sit out — in six if he plays.


Curtis Uemura is SFBay’s Golden State Warriors beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @CUemura on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Warriors basketball.