Maybe the Los Angeles Clippers did the San Antonio Spurs a favor by eliminating them in the first-round last year. Losing in the first round allowed the franchise to decompress in mid-May and re-evaluate the team. It also allowed the older guys to rest and save the wear and tear on their bodies.
Were the Spurs good enough to get over the top last season? Perhaps, but with the Golden State Warriors running roughshod through the conference, it would have been difficult. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili seemed to be on their last legs and were unable to create the same separation or same volume of shot opportunities they are this year. Tiago Splitter's injury deprived the Spurs of a rim protector and big body to use against the DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin frontcourt.
Maybe the early exit led the Spurs brass to make a more concerted push for LaMarcus Aldridge. With Duncan and Ginobili in uncertain territory, and the mileage on Parker's legs, the Big Three are no longer able to carry a contending team for an entire season. Placing the entire burden on Kawhi Leonard would not be ideal. To hear Parker tell it, the Spurs were "all-in" this offseason. It was either land Aldridge or reboot in a different direction without Duncan, Ginobili and possibly Danny Green, who might opt for the money in this scenario. San Antonio was playing the highest stakes game of poker imaginable and we didn't even know it.
Now the team is fundamentally different from last season's team. For starters, there's Aldridge, an improvement over Splitter in every facet of the game. With the Spurs, Aldridge has worked as the ideal big man for Tim --capable of switching on to smaller players at the end of the shot clock, checking quicker big men -- all while protecting the rim alongside Duncan. There were some concerns that the Spurs' interior defense would take a hit by losing Splitter, but Aldridge has shown how silly that theory was.
Then there's Leonard, who has continued his steady rise. This season he's flashing Michael Jordan fadeaways, Dirk Nowitzki leg-kick fadeaways and stealing cookies from every NBA player. He's activated another level of Spurs defense single-handedly, operating as a deadly force on both sides of the ball.
Parker and Ginobili are different this season too. The former is leading the NBA in field goal percentage among guards, while the latter is averaging 19.3 points, 6.3 assists and 2.2 3-pointers per 36 minutes this season. Neither is needed to dominate on any given night, but they remain the catalysts for the big chunk of the Spurs offense.
Armed with a suffocating defense, and an increased diet of mid-range shots, San Antonio is still the basketball juggernaut of old.
They just needed a wake-up call last season. They have the Clippers to thank for that.
LaMarcus Aldridge: 26 points on 11-18 shooting, 13 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block.
This is why the Spurs paid him $84 million.
Quote(s) of the night
"We're not better than those teams. We're not as good as those teams. We can be, but we've got some work to do."
- Blake Griffin on the Warriors, Spurs
"The Clips are a hell of a team."
- Gregg Popovich
By the numbers
- 50: percent shooting for the Clippers, the second-highest percentage allowed by the Spurs this season.
- 40: free throw attempts for the Clippers. Credit DeAndre Jordan's free throw woes for this ridiculous number.
- 20: free throw attempts for Jordan. The Clippers are 14-1 all-time when Jordan shoots more than 14 free throws in a game. Yup, Friday night was the first time extended Hack-a-Jordan has ever resulted in a victory.
- +11: Over the last eight games between these teams, the Spurs have scored 839 points. The Clippers have scored 828 points.
- 15-0: San Antonio is undefeated at the AT&T Center, becoming the first Western Conference team since the Los Angeles Lakers in 1988-89 to open the season with 15 consecutive home victories.
- 24: straight victories at the AT&T Center, dating back to last season.
- 55.9 percent: Tony Parker's league leading field goal percentage among guards this season. Steph Curry is second, shooting 52 percent from the field.
- 90: points for the Spurs' starting five. Aldridge led the way with 26 points, Parker had 21, Leonard followed with 19, Duncan chipped in 14 and Green added 10 points of his own.
- 0: minutes for Boban Marjanovic. Gregg Popovich had mercy on the Clippers.
- Let's have the obligatory Hack-a-Jordan discussion. I'm not a fan of the strategy because it isn't fun to watch and intentionally fouling kills the natural flow of basketball. At the same time, if you can't make more than 40 percent of your free throws, you kind of have it coming.
- The positives of Hack-a-Jordan: halt the Clippers offensive momentum, induce doubt in Jordan, increased rest for the Spurs.
- The downside of Hack-a-Jordan: halt the Spurs offensive momentum, make every basketball fan gouge their eyes out, increased rest for the Clippers.
- For all the fouling, the Spurs trimmed the four-point lead to three points. But, if you're willing to make this leap, the Clippers offense was not the same in the fourth quarter after Jordan's free throw barrage. Whether that was the product of playing heavy minutes or Hack-a-Jordan or some other factor remains to be seen.
- Anyway, it's a positive sign to see Aldridge put up his fifth 20-10 game of the season. Over his last nine games, he's averaging 23.5 points and 10 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 56 percent from the field. The comfort level is growing and he's found the happy medium between controlling the offense when necessary and moving the ball. Case in point: He had a mid-range jumper in the fourth quarter, but made the extra pass to Jonathon Simmons in the corner, resulting in a wide-open 3-pointer.
- Danny Green has been killed in Spurs circles lately, but he had some success last night. 10 points on six shots and two 3-pointers. He had two blocks, including an impressive chase down block on Chris Paul. Is there a better guard at defending in transition? Because you'd be hard pressed to find someone as deft as Green at eliminating transition opportunities.
- Jonathon Simmons checked in for eight minutes, scored five points, made both of his shots and the Spurs outscored the Clippers by 17 points in that stretch.
- On that note, even thought no one on the Spurs bench finished in double-figures, it was clear who was the more productive second unit. Not that there was any question beforehand.
- The game was won when Paul, Jordan and Blake Griffin hit the bench. Unable to muster up productive minutes from its bench for the entire game, the Clippers lead was eliminated entirely once the Spurs backups entered the game. Telling stat: Clippers were +8 in Griffin's 40 minutes and a -16 in the eight minutes that he sat.
The only thing worse than DeAndre Jordan shooting free throws is Jeff Van Gundy talking about DeAndre Jordan shooting free throws— Quixem Ramirez (@quixem) December 19, 2015
TIM(ELESS) DUNCAN.— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) December 19, 2015
Tim Duncan is like 196 years old and still sealing wins for a top-2 team in the league.— Brayden Neubauer (@Braydenominator) December 19, 2015
The best part about Tim Duncan's greatness is that he'll outlive all the cliches we use to describe him.— Caleb Saenz (@calebjsaenz) December 19, 2015
Arguably the Spurs best win of the season.— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) December 19, 2015
Josh Smith tells Tim Duncan "anything you can do I can do worse"— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) December 19, 2015
When bae lookin fine and you catch someone at the bar creepin pic.twitter.com/8GXAIOtae5— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) December 19, 2015
Arguments against cloning: ethics issues, safety concerns Argument for cloning: we could watch Kawhi Leonard play Kawhi Leonard one-on-one— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) December 19, 2015
This Clippers-Spurs game is incredible. Both teams literally just picked up right where they left off in the first round last playoffs.— SB Nation NBA (@SBNationNBA) December 19, 2015
The Spurs are so freaking good. Can they just start playing the Warriors now in a best of 55 to see who gets the West?— Brian Geltzeiler (@hoopscritic) December 19, 2015
Taco Bell menu item of the game
Let's go with the nachos supreme. It's cheap ($2.39), but an effective nacho option for your investment. If you begin in the middle, with all of the beef and cheese, it's fantastic. Then once you reach the outer areas, where the cheese and beef are few and far in between, it becomes a dicey option.
Spurs-Clippers was a blast in the first half, then the third quarter happened and Hack-a-Jordan sucked all the fun out of the game.
And that's a wrap. Until next time ...