OAKLAND, Calif. — Bored and banged up in the final weeks of the regular season, the Golden State Warriors stumbled against inferior foes, hardly looking like a defending champion steamrolling toward a repeat title — and their third in four years — and instead conveying vulnerability and mortality.
But even as his team lost 10 of 17 games to close out the 2017-18 campaign, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr maintained a steady confidence that when the games truly mattered, his squad would return to its dominant form of old, even with two-time MVP Stephen Curry (knee) sidelined.
The Warriors shed the lethargy they wore in recent weeks in Saturday’s 113-92 Game 1 win over the San Antonio Spurs in their first-round series and, as Kerr prophesied, awakened, as they opened their trek toward, potentially, a fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance.
“We’re a championship ballclub,” said Warriors forward Draymond Green, who had 12 points, 8 rebounds and 11 assists. “We know what it takes this time of year in order to win. We want to get back to that, regardless of what everyone is saying, ‘The Warriors have lost it; they are not together; they can’t win without Steph, they are not the same team’ — blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
“We know what we’re capable of. You know, there has been games that we’ve won without Steph; a series. Same as Kevin [Durant], myself; we’ve won games without myself. We’ve won games without Klay [Thompson]. We’ve won games without our head coach. So we’re primed for this. I think a lot of people have tend to forgot what we’re capable of. We know, and we’re going to show that.”
For the Spurs, the 21-point loss marked their most lopsided defeat in a postseason opener under longtime head coach Gregg Popovich, with the previous worst defeat being a 15-point loss to the Clippers in the 2015 playoffs.
“They had more grunt,” Popovich said of the Warriors. “They had more physicality. The first quarter, we looked like deer in the headlights, very disappointing. I thought we were very prepared physically and mentally, but I was mistaken. As I said, we looked like deer in the headlights.”
Though Curry isn’t expected to return until the second round, the second-seeded Warriors didn’t miss him much, never trailing and leading by as many as 28 points. Kevin Durant finished with 24 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists, nearly tallying his first postseason triple-double.
“I think that’s the beauty of our team; that all of us can go off and score 30 or get eight, nine assists or grab 11 rebounds,” Durant said.
Swingman Klay Thompson said he had jitters the night before, because of how he excited he was to commence his sixth straight postseason. Then he scored a game-high 27 points on 11-of-13 shooting from the field, his best shooting performance in any game where he took multiple shots.
To Thompson, it was, as Green said, all about making a statement.
“We did not end the season on a high note,” he said. “We kind of hobbled into the playoffs, but we know how talented we are and how good we are. We have been here before in the postseason and know what it takes to win.”
The seventh-seeded Spurs, on the other hand, were badly in need of star Kawhi Leonard, who missed 73 games in the regular season. Without Leonard, the Spurs, making their 21st consecutive postseason appearance, struggled to generate offense and did little to stop Durant, or anyone else, for that matter.
The death knell for the Spurs, however, came around the rim, as they scored just 22 points in the paint on 11-of-30 (37 percent) shooting in that area. The 22 paint points were the fewest for the Spurs in a game this season.
The Spurs also finished with nary a single second-chance point, the first time they’ve had zero second-chance points in the past 20 postseasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Their last regular-season game with zero second-chance points came March 10, 2010, against Cleveland.
“It was important to re-establish our defense, one way or the other; win or lose, like, we had to bring the effort at the defensive end because that’s the only way you can have success in the playoffs,” Kerr said. “And that’s the reason this is a championship team.”
Kerr added, “We finally got back to defending the way we have, the way this team has, for many years, even before I got here.”
The Spurs’ starters also finished with just 33 points, tied for their lowest total this season, and grabbed 30 rebounds, their fewest in a playoff game since Game 3 of the 2014 NBA Finals.
“We’ve got to regroup,” said Spurs guard Manu Ginobili. “Feel hurt, upset, kind of desperate. We don’t want to go home 0-2.”
Much of their struggles in the lane were due to Warriors starting center JaVale McGee, whose length stifled the Spurs.
McGee tallied 9 points, 3 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 block in the first nine minutes, topping his season averages in each of those categories in the opening quarter alone.
McGee, who finished with a season-high 15 points in 16 minutes, also helped stifle LaMarcus Aldridge, holding the Spurs’ All-Star forward to four points on 2-of-8 shooting from the field when he was his primary defender.
“Tonight, I was overthinking it, probably making too many moves,” said Aldridge, who finished with 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting. “But the next game, I’m going to be a whole lot better.”
The Warriors raced to a double-digit lead in the first quarter, largely by controlling the paint, where they tallied 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting while the Spurs shot just 1-of-7 in that area.
The Warriors kept pushing and led by as many as 18 points in the second quarter and then 23 in the third.
As for the Spurs’ adjustments for Game 2 in Oakland? “We’ll have Danny [Green] grow four or five inches by Monday night,” Popovich quipped, “tell him to jump higher and move quicker, and we’ll tell Kevin [Durant], ‘Don’t be so good.'”