The Spurs --and by "the Spurs" I really mean Gregg Popovich-- get a lot of blame in some quarters for turning games against the Clippers into an unwatchable mess, but remember, it takes two to tango. They wouldn't foul DeAndre Jordan so damn much if he, you know, could make more than 40 percent of them, and Pop probably wouldn't feel the need to if his defense had any workable solution for stopping the Clippers offense.
Coming into the game the Spurs led the league in just about every defensive category, from defensive rating to fewest free-throw attempts allowed to defensive rebound percentage to the holy hat trick of three-point defense (fewest attempts, fewest makes and worst shooting percentage). Yet the Clippers, as usual, found a way to render all of those impressive stats irrelevant.
They had 88 points through 36 minutes, on 57.4 percent shooting. The Spurs have held 13 opponents to 85 or fewer points in entire games. San Antonio was averaging 5.8 threes allowed on 19.2 attempts, a 30.3 shooting percentage. The Clippers were 9-of-16 (56.3 percent) through three periods.
And it probably would've been worse had Popovich not resorted to some hack-a-Jordan late in the third.
Fortunately for the home fans, the Spurs were able to hang in the game despite their woeful defense, trailing just 88-85 going into the fourth before an 11-0 run by their bench gave them a lead they would never relinquish and more hackery of Jordan --he finished 8-of-20 from the line as Jeff Van Gundy went apoplectic from the broadcast table-- took both offenses out of rhythm for a sizable chunk of the final quarter, a prevent defense in a sense. Tony Parker hit a number of big shots late to salvage stilted possessions and the Spurs came away with their 15th consecutive home win this season without a blemish.
"They're a very tough team to guard," observed Manu Ginobili of the Clippers. "They have Blake (Griffin), who was hitting that mid-range shot, you've got Jordan rolling to the rim, you've got to be there or it's very hard. You've got (J.J.) Redick coming off screens and of course Chris (Paul) and (Jamal) Crawford coming from the bench... but they still have to get that second unit mixed with the way they play and that's an advantage we had today."
For most of the game it didn't look like the Spurs had any advantages against L.A. They were down 14-8 early before Kawhi Leonard and Parker connected on a pair of wing threes and Aldridge hit three pick-and-pop jumpers. Both starting units were swinging haymakers to a 23-23 draw but the Clips' bench answered the bell while the Spurs reserves struggled and it was a 30-26 lead for the visitors after the opening quarter, with Ginobili grumbling about a couple of missed calls. The two All-Star power forwards; Griffin for the Clips and Aldridge for the Spurs, led their teams with 10 and 8 points respectively and nine of the San Antonio's 11 buckets were assisted.
The Spurs defense improved marginally in the second quarter in that they forced a few more turnovers, but that was about it. Griffin returned to earth with Aldridge doing a solid job on him but Paul scored eight in the period and Redick hit both of his open looks. Paul is a maestro who just excels at getting his guys good looks practically every time down the floor and the Clippers were constantly forcing mismatches on switches that invariably had one of the Spurs wings trying to prevent Griffin from backing them down and a big trying to hang with Paul at the three-point line. And if it wasn't that, it was Redick, who was losing Leonard on a litany of well-executed screens.
San Antonio gave as good as they got though, and the main catalyst was Danny Green, who's been struggling miserably with his three-point stroke and missed two more of them in the opening quarter. To his credit, he's never quit hustling no matter how much he's struggled and he seemed to get himself going by going to the bucket hard in transition, not taking it for granted that Patty Mills would make a layup. He laid in the offensive board and then swished a corner three and then one from the wing over the next couple of minutes to reach double figures for only the sixth time all season. (It would also be only the second time that all five Spurs starters scored in double digits, with the first being Aldridge's return to Portland on Nov. 11.)
Duncan found Aldridge for a pair of successive (and successful) hi-lo alley-oops late in the quarter and had a pair of tricky and-1 finishes himself --Timmeh looked pretty up for this one after sitting out the previous game against the Wizards-- and the Spurs were tied 55-55 at half.
The Tim Duncan/LaMarcus Aldridge high/low game is a trip. Back to back possessions. pic.twitter.com/0m5OcjZTQp— Chris Itz (@Chris_Itz1) December 19, 2015
Timmy Duncan with the board and the and one. Tim's the best. pic.twitter.com/eM4hXWsNGd— Chris Itz (@Chris_Itz1) December 19, 2015
Tim Duncan has nine in the first half, 4-of-6. pic.twitter.com/c2JV00t6v5— Chris Itz (@Chris_Itz1) December 19, 2015
Pop made a defensive adjustment to start the second half, switching Green onto Redick in hopes that he would be able to navigate around L.A.'s screens easier, but that didn't work so well either, so he brought the indefatigable Mills into the fray early in the second half for the task.
Paul was still shaking free of Parker easily and nailing his jumpers and was giving me flashbacks to the previous spring. He was masterful in the third with 11 points and five assists. Leonard hit a couple of ridiculous shots on the other end and Aldridge canned three more jumpers --he tied his season-high with 26 points to lead the Spurs-- to keep the Spurs in the game.
Ummmmm.... pic.twitter.com/a7wN0UTGYY— Chris Itz (@Chris_Itz1) December 19, 2015
Kawhi Leonard is special. Really special. pic.twitter.com/UndCJfoRqV— Chris Itz (@Chris_Itz1) December 19, 2015
"He was huge," Parker said of the former Blazer. "I felt like we really saw the LaMarcus we're going to need if we want to make any kind of run."
Trailing 81-76 with 2:38 to go in the third, Popovich had seen enough to wave the white flag defensively. He started fouling Jordan, who went to line on six straight trips, making 5-of-12. Jonathon Simmons hit a corner three off a pass from Aldridge in that stretch, but the Spurs only trimmed the deficit by a bucket with all that fouling, and you wondered if it was even necessary. Paul had already gone to the bench by then and Griffin exited the final couple of times they fouled. How dangerous could the Clippers be without them?
The bench hadn't done much through three quarters, but they came up big in the fourth, with Simmons (a game-high +17 in 8:27) and David West giving them some good minutes.
Spurs-ball pic.twitter.com/Al3VxVsvDQ— Chris Itz (@Chris_Itz1) December 19, 2015
They got in quick foul trouble though and found themselves in the penalty with nine minutes to go. Naturally what followed was more purposeful fouling of Jordan, four consecutive trips worth. The Spurs offense went dry, as we've seen it do last year in hack-a-whoever situations, where all the standing around threw off their rhythm, and they went scoreless for three minutes as the Clippers cut the deficit to three.
Then, a funny thing happened. San Antonio quit fouling and the Clippers went cold themselves, perhaps thrown off by having to run offense when they were expecting more fouls. They shot just 5-of-18 (27.8 percent) in the fourth, and 1-of-8 from downtown. The Spurs weren't that much better, and had a hell of a time getting open shots, but Parker made two mid-range jumpers and two corner threes at end of shot clocks and scored 10 of his 21 in the fourth.
"I was just trying to get somebody open and I went to my baseline, 'the Steve Nash special' and nobody was open and I was like 'Oh, I'm the one who's open,' so I just shot it and I felt comfortable," Parker explained.
The Spurs survived their toughest test to date and this time hack-a-Jordan worked to their advantage. We can expect to see it plenty more in the future, unless Jordan suddenly gets a whole lot better at shooting free-throws or the Clippers get a whole lot easier to defend.
Your Three Stars:
1. LaMarcus Aldridge
2. Tony Parker
3. Patty Mills
Up Next: Vs. Indiana Pacers (16-9)
The Spurs conclude their home stand against a Pacers squad who've been one of the surprising feel-good stories of the season, just 1.5 games behind the Cavs for second in the East. Paul George is fully back and playing like a top-ten player again --the match-up between he and Leonard should be fantastic-- and C.J. Miles is in the running for Most Improved Player as their secondary scorer. Ian Mahinmi has held his own as their starting center with Roy Hibbert traded to the Lakers in the off-season and while fellow former Spur George Hill has been somewhat disappointing overall, he's shooting threes very well for them. Newcomer Monta Ellis has been a bust so far as a free-agent signing, but Jordan Hill has been pretty solid up front. The Pacers play a ton of small-ball and are one of the league's best three-point shooting teams, so we'll see how that affects the Spurs' lineups and how much West will get to play against his old mates.