I know most of us have probably done it before, but try to remember how you felt at the end of last season. The Grizzlies beat the Spurs, who seemed unable to overcome their limitations; small on the wings, undersized front court, lack of playmaking. Duncan looked mortal for the first time in his career, Manu couldn't catch a break from the basketball Gods health-wise, and Tony Parker was played to a draw by Mike Conley, of all people. Even during that great 61 win regular season there was doubt in our minds that the team had what it took to go all the way.
Fast forward to this post-season. Tim Duncan looks rejuvenated,Tony Parker is having the best season of his career, and Manu Ginobili managed to finally get into the playoffs healthy. The Spurs have as deep a roster as there is in the NBA with long, athletic wings and an enviable front court rotation; no match up problems in sight. They are crushing opponents with flawless execution and are primed to take the Western Conference title. What a difference a year makes.
You have to give it to the Clippers. Most people, myself included, thought this last game was going to be a cakewalk. Their stars were hurt, they were down 3-0 and the Spurs had looked unbeatable throughout the series. And yet they clawed their way into the type of close game they hadn't been able to force before.
The Clippers started the game more focused, while the good guys seemed lost. After finding themselves in an early 9-4 deficit, Gregg Popovich called for a timeout to get his guys to focus. It worked, with the Spurs going 14-0 after that to claim a lead that they wouldn't relinquish until the second half. When the Spurs got their max lead of 12 in the 2ndquarter, it looked like the Clippers were going to roll over but the home team seemed determined to make this a game. The Spurs' complacency and the Clippers bench showing up to play allowed LA to close the gap to 3 going into halftime.
Knowing that it was do or die time, the Clippers started the 3rd quarter going all out with Blake Griffin leading the way, showing more aggression than he had all series to finish the quarter with 12 points. The Spurs, as always, had an answer in the form of Tim Duncan, who countered with 11 points of his own. Just as the Clippers weren't ready to concede the series, the Spurs weren't ready to concede the game and go back to San Antonio.
Going into the 4th down 1, the Spurs knew that the Clippers would have to eventually rest their starters and were waiting for an opportunity to pounce on them, but Eric Bledsoe came off the bench to re-energize an LA team desperate for a spark. With the Clipper lead now at 5 after a DeAndre Jordan alley oop, it was time for Pop's guys to out-execute Vinny's, and they did. For the last 5 minutes of the game, also known as the clutch, the Clippers gave Chris Paul the ball and stood there watching him work. Aside from some Reggie Evans free throws after an intentional foul and a missed Williams floater, Paul used all the Clippers' possessions. Meanwhile, 4 players scored for the Spurs in that time span. That, right there, is the difference between the two teams.
After a couple of game-sealing free throws by Parker, the Spurs got the sweep, beating the Clippers 102-99.
Game and series notes
Since all the talking points have been exhausted (Boris Diaw was a great pickup, Kawhi Leonard is great, the Spurs are a real TEAM, etc.) I'd like to talk about defense.
While the offense gets all the attention, the Spurs' defensive improvements can't be overstated. The Spurs have managed to control two remarkably different offenses in these two rounds with only minor hiccups. Coincidentally, those were the two types that most thought would cause the Spurs trouble: an elite offensive front court and an elite pick and roll offense. The Clippers had the 4th best offensive rating and the Jazz the 7th. Neither could crack the Spurs' defense for more than a quarter.
Chris Paul wasn't healthy, but at 75% he's still a better player than his numbers for the series suggest; credit the Spurs' defense, Danny Green in particular, with making life hell for the All-World point guard. The only thing the defense conceded the pick and roll ball handler was the mid range jumper, which Paul was sometimes hesitant to take. That strategy should work in the next round whether the Spurs face Sessions or Westbrook. The long limbs of our wings and the multiple looks the Spurs can afford to use against great scorers really take players out of rhythm. Having good individual defenders to go with Pop's masterful defensive strategies has made a world of difference.
At the moment I'm writing this recap, the Spurs rank 3rd in defensive rating in the playoffs and 2nd in offensive rating. No other team is top three in both categories. The Spurs are scary.
What's next for the Clippers?
The Clippers have some big decisions to make. Should they keep Vinny Del Negro and give him one more year to prove himself? Is Nick Young a long term answer at shooting guard? Did they do the right thing by matching on DeAndre Jordan? Will Mo Williams be happy coming off the bench one more season without an extension in place? The answer to all of those questions seems to be "No", but when you have a duo like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin anchoring your franchise nothing can possibly be that bad. Before the Chris Paul trade, the Clippers had a young core that was expected to develop together. The trade sped up their plans and now it is on Neil Olshey to fill the gaps and make them a true contender. Some tough decisions will have to be made but I expect the Clippers to be back in the playoffs next season, better than ever, threatening to take the West crown.
What's next for the Spurs?
The Spurs will go on to face the winner of the Lakers-OKC match up. Right now it looks like the Thunder will be our rival and without taking anything away from a fantastic team that boasts three great players and a good supporting cast, the Spurs match up well against OKC. The players that didn't have a good series against the Clippers could flourish in the west Finals. Gary Neal won't have to go up against the über-athletic Eric Bledsoe; he's going to face Derek Fisher and Daequan Cook. Matt Bonner could be a fantastic asset drawing Serge Ibaka out of the paint, and Stephen Jackson is going to be trusted to guard Durant on occasion. If the Lakers regroup and turn the series around, the drubbing the Spurs delivered after the wake up call that was Andrew Bynum grabbing 30 boards makes me confident that the guys in silver and black can take them, too.
I haven't seen such a dominant stretch of basketball in a long time. And the Spurs have managed to do it without any player scoring more than 30 points in a single game in the playoffs. Amazing.
Finally, I want to thank the good folks over at Clips Nation for being classy. The interaction between our two fan bases, at least here on PtR, has been fantastic and I really hope you feel comfortable coming back to discuss basketball. There's also always room for more people on the Spurs' bandwagon, just so you know.