Spurs, Warriors battle for top seed in West

By Matt Verderame

The Golden State Warriors were expected to blow by everyone once more on their way to a third straight appearance in the NBA Finals. Instead, an old stumbling block decided to show up once more, making the postseason for the 20th consecutive season under head coach Gregg Popovich.

To the shock of nobody, the San Antonio Spurs are in the mix to play spoiler for Golden State, although many didn’t believe they would take the role so seriously. This is not the same team we’ve been seeing over the past decade-plus out of the Spurs, with Tim Duncan retired and Manu Ginobili on his last legs. This is a group led by superstar Kawhi Leonard and center LaMarcus Aldridge, who are making the Warriors earn anything they get, even in the regular season.

At 53-14, the Warriors are only a half-game ahead of the Spurs after having to eek out a win at home over the Philadelphia 76ers. Without Kevin Durant in the lineup – potentially until the playoffs begin thanks to a knee injury- there is real reason to wonder if Golden State can hold up. Back in July when Durant joined the likes of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, some thought their record of 73 wins would be in jeopardy. Instead, while the team is better in many metrics such as point differential, it is obviously weaker in terms of depth and size.

To accommodate the contract of Durant, the Warriors watched as Maurice Speights and Andrew Bogut left. Without them, the interior is now wide open for opponents to exploit at will. Meanwhile, San Antonio is 52-14 and playing with good balance both in the back and front courts. The Spurs are led by Leonard and Aldridge, but are getting solid contributions from Pau Gasol and Tony Parker. Leonard, always a great defensive player, has turned into one of the top scorers in the game, averaging 26.3 points per night.

Both Golden State and San Antonio should be pushing hard for the top seed, if only for two reasons. For starters, the winner will have home-court advantage should the two meet up in the Western Conference Final. Secondly, the first seed will be playing a team that is well below the .500 mark in the first round, probably being the Denver Nuggets. The second seed is likely in the first round, but might have to fight much harder against the Memphis Grizzlies or Oklahoma City Thunder. In addition, the No. 2 seed is very likely going to see James Harden and the Houston Rockets in the second round.

The NBA isn’t known for its regular season intrigue, but this is a battle worth watching.