The Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs play on Thursday night, the first of two meetings in a four-day span. The two games will be the first instances in NBA history of two teams with at least 65 wins playing each other in the regular season.
One of the main storylines of these two contests, and one that could be significant in a potential meeting in the Western Conference finals (BPI currently gives them a 65 percent chance of meeting), is which team can dictate tempo.
The Warriors play quickly (the second-fastest pace in the NBA) while the Spurs play slowly (the sixth-slowest pace in the NBA). Steve Kerr wants the Warriors getting out in transition and striking quickly, while Gregg Popovich’s team plays under control and relies on a suffocating half-court defense.
During the season's first two meetings between these squads, whichever team controlled the tempo went on to win.
In the first tilt on Jan. 25 that Golden State won by 30, the game was played at a pace of nearly 106 possessions per 48 minutes. It remains the fastest-paced outing that San Antonio has played this season. The second meeting on March 19 -- an 87-79 Spurs victory -- was played at a pace of just over 90 possessions per 48 minutes.
Two vastly different tempos. Two vastly different outcomes.
Looking beyond just those two meetings, what happens when Golden State is forced to slow down? And what happens when San Antonio is forced to speed up?
When playing quickly, there is nobody better than the Warriors. They have played 51 games with a pace of at least 100 possessions per 48 minutes. In those games, they have outscored their opponents by 10.3 points per 100 possessions, best in the NBA.
While the Spurs prefer to play slowly -- they’ve only played 13 games at a pace in the triple digits -- they are no slouches in track meets, either. In fact, the Spurs rank second in the NBA in overall efficiency in those games, outscoring opponents by 9.3 points per 100 possessions.
When games are played neither at a sprint nor crawl, the Spurs and Warriors still rank as the top two teams in the NBA. In games played with a pace between 95 and 100, the Warriors have outscored opponents by an astonishing 18.8 points per 100 possessions, while the Spurs have outscored opponents by 13.2 points per 100 possessions.
For the Warriors, in particular, it suggests that by dialing back the pace just a bit, they can transform from a dominant team to an unstoppable juggernaut.
While the numbers suggest Golden State is better when playing at a medium pace, it should be careful not to slow down too much. It’s when looking at games played at a crawl that San Antonio finds a real advantage.
The Spurs have played 32 games this season at a pace slower than 95, while the Warriors have played eight. In those games, the Spurs have outscored opponents by 14 points per 100 possessions, easily the best in the NBA. By contrast, the Warriors overall efficiency of +2.9 points per 100 possessions ranks tied for 10th.
So while the Spurs can likely play Golden State’s game, the opposite might not hold true. Which means controlling tempo -- especially for the Warriors -- is a major key to focus on moving forward.