The NBA All-Star Game has come and gone and it is time for the San Antonio Spurs to really start preparing for the playoff push. At this point, whether or not the Spurs will make the playoffs is not in question. The important thing for San Antonio to do for the rest of the season is to get and stay healthy on top of guaranteeing as many home advantages as possible in the Western Conference playoffs. As it stands, the Spurs are 38-15, which is good for the second seed behind Oklahoma City.
It is unclear how healthy the Spurs are right now, but the second half of the schedule does not start out with an easy matchup. San Antonio is still in the middle of the Rodeo Road Trip, so that means a road contest with the Los Angeles Clippers. Los Angeles enters the post-All-Star break portion of the schedule in fourth place in the Western Conference. The Clippers didn't come from nowhere, but there is a sense that they finally belong in the discussion as a true Western Conference contender this year.
The biggest reason for that change has been the defensive intensity that Doc Rivers brought from Boston to a franchise known as "Lob City" for the past few years. Rivers hasn't completely dialed back the flash of players like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but he has demanded more out of his team on the defensive side of the court because Rivers understands that the playoffs come down to half-court execution and a team that operated like the Clippers of old could never get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference by outscoring opponents.
No one is going to mistake the Los Angeles defense for that of Indiana or Chicago, but it has been improving for much of the season. The Clippers give up 100.6 points per game, which ranks right in the middle in points allowed. The Clippers still run a relatively high-paced offense, so its tempo is never going to allow its defense to grind out opponents and lead the league in points allowed. Rivers, however, has taught his team the importance of situational defense. Los Angeles has been much better defensively down the stretch of important games than it has been in years past. That will be a big key for this team once the playoffs begin.
Don't let the new rhetoric fool you, though. Los Angeles can still score with anyone in this league. The team is second in the league in points per game, scoring 107 per this season. It isn't cool to say anymore, but CP3 is still the best point guard in the game. He and Tony Parker have battled many times, so we know what to expect out of those two. Each has had success scoring and distributing against the other, but Paul may have more weapons at his disposal right now, especially given San Antonio's injury issues. Paul has a 27.3 PER and leads the team with 11.1 assists and 2.5 steals a game. He has a 4.3 assist to turnover ratio and averages 19.2 points per game.
Outside of coaching philosophy, however, the biggest improvement for the Clippers has been from Griffin. He is still known as "just a dunker" and his offensive game isn't as polished as it should be, but he has improved. Saying otherwise would be lazy. He'll probably never have a truly developed low-post game, but he has been better with his back to the basket and facing up. He has also added a little bit of range in his mid-range jump shot. Griffin averages 24.2 points per game, the lone Clippers player to score over 20 points per game this season.
The rest of Los Angeles' roster is set up to work around Paul and Griffin. DeAndre Jordan is not a huge offensive threat, but he is a very good rebounder and rim protector. Guys like Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick and Darren Collison can score. Jared Dudley and Matt Barnes bring a little bit of edge and toughness to a team that has been known for being soft.
The Clippers are a true contender this season.
Matchup to watch: The Parker/CP3 showdown is always fun to watch, but it'll be slowing down Griffin that will be the key for the Spurs. If he gets easy looks early, Griffin has shown the ability to go for nearly 30 on any given night. If he is forced to be patient early and take a few bad shots, his rhythm has been greatly changed for the rest of the game. The Spurs need to establish its pace early in this contest and keep the Clippers grounded.
The Clippers fan's perspective can be found at Clips Nation.
Game Prediction: Spurs by 4
Line in Vegas: Clippers by 5
As always Tony must dominate Fisher, and NBA league pass is recommended for those who are willing to pony up the cash. Almost every Spurs game will be broadcast there, which is especially helpful for those of us who aren't in the San Antonio area. Please don't post links to illegal game feeds in the game thread. Links to illegal feeds are not permitted on SBNation, but you can probably find them out there on the internets if you're resourceful and desperate.
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