Every week, The New York Times will choose one essential game to watch, highlighting hot teams, winning and losing streaks and statistical intrigue in the N.B.A.
San Antonio at Golden State, Monday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern, NBATV
Writing about the Golden State Warriors last week, I suggested that the team might have lost a step in the race against the other two teams widely acknowledged to be championship contenders, the Cleveland Cavaliers and theSan Antonio Spurs. The next day, the Warriors strolled into the Cavsâ€™ Quicken Loans Arena â€” where they won last yearâ€™s N.B.A. championship â€” and dominated the home team, winning each of the first three quarters by double digits, and eventually coming away with a 132-98 victory. At no point did they seem like a team that was second to anyone.
As dazzling as their offense was against the Cavaliers, it was the Warriorsâ€™ defense that sealed the victory. The Warriors held LeBron James to 16 points, Kyrie Irving to 8 points and Kevin Love to 3 points. J. R. Smith, who usually attempts about six 3-pointers a game, did not fire off a single one before being ejected.
The Warriorsâ€™ defense was particularly impressive in the early minutes of the opening quarter, causing the Cavaliers to miss a flurry of shots and turn the ball over several times en route to a 15-5 Warriors lead. They ended the quarter leading by 34-21. Golden State has made a point of taking these early defensive stands in a recent minitour of some of the Eastern Conferenceâ€™s best teams. After Cleveland, the Warriors traveled to Chicago, where they led the Bulls by 34-18 in the first quarter. They were only a touch less tenacious at home against Indiana, outplaying the Pacers, 32-18, in the opening quarter as Steve Kerr coached his first game this season. After the Warriors had slipped a bit on defense during the past couple of weeks, these three games felt like a message: Golden State was as dialed in as ever.
But while this Eastern Conference gantlet might have sharpened their play, the Warriorsâ€™ toughest challenge of the season will come Monday night against their Western Conference rival, the Spurs. The game, the first of four meetings, is eagerly awaited as fans have been arguing for weeks over which team is better.
There are strong arguments on both sides. Entering Monday, the showier Warriors have the better record (40-4), remain the best scoring team and have a more reliable scoring superstar in Stephen Curry than anyone on the Spursâ€™ roster. They remain undefeated at home â€” and so do the Spurs, who have also been more statistically dominant than the Warriors. San Antonio wins by larger margins, helped along by a league-best defense.
Since the beginning of December, the Spurs have looked dominant. Their point differential, a marker of combined offensive and defensive efficiency, is 19.6. The Warriors have a point differential of 11.5 in the same stretch. The Spurs have a 13-game win streak entering Monday, and they have fully incorporated their new addition, LaMarcus Aldridge, the former Portland forward, as an essential part of their offense. With Aldridge as a focal point inside, Kawhi Leonard, who was just selected to his first All-Star Game, has more freedom of movement, which fosters his growing ability to score from nearly anywhere on the floor. Those two players, along with a potent bench led by Manu Ginobili and David West, have revitalized San Antonio and have lightened the load on veterans like Tim Duncan, who will sit out Mondayâ€™s game with knee soreness.
If recent history is any indication, the Spurs may have a slight advantage over the Warriors. San Antonio and Golden State did not meet in the playoffs last year, but San Antonio has had Golden Stateâ€™s number like no other team in recent seasons. In two of three games last season, the Spurs beat the Warriors, including a sound 107-92 victory in April that ended a 12-game Golden State win streak. It was the 32nd victory in a row for the Spurs over the Warriors in San Antonio.
Both teams are having remarkable, record-breaking seasons, and it is fascinating that they should be playing at such a high level at the same time. Though their rosters have little in common, both teams maximize their advantages by playing with focus and effort on both sides of the ball, and with a great deal of joy on offense. It is this quality most of all that makes the Spurs and the Warriors such a pleasure to watch, one that should lend itself to some great basketball when the two best teams in the N.B.A. meet on Monday for the first time this season.