Over the past five years, no one team has been as good at producing compelling NBA theater as the Clippers. Part of that is because LeBron James' traveling circus has followed him from Cleveland to South Beach (and back again), but LA is still the franchise that is as, well, Hollywood as it gets. From drama in the front office to unsavory on-court reputations and high-flying acrobatics, the league's other LA team has waffled between contender status and postseason disappointment, Youtube darlings and Four Horsemen-level villains.
Pro wrestling is all about babyfaces and heels: venerated people's champs and scripted losers. And on Game 1, the Clippers attempted to lay claim to the former, drop-kicking the defending champs to the orgiastic delight of the Staples Center crowd. Each Blake Griffin dunk and DeAndre Jordan swat, every Chris Paul shimmy and Jamal Crawford crossover, felt like a Stonecold Stunner to the heart of the Spurs -- and their inability to swing momentum the other way made the visiting team seem overwhelmed at times.
The Clippers' mouthpiece, Diamond Doc Rivers, had already embraced the series underdog title -- which is more of a rallying cry than anything else considering the team's number-one ranked offense and two all-world players. These are two teams that are very closely matched, and homecourt advantage is a big advantage indeed, especially considering SA's road woes.
Despite foul trouble for Kawhi and cold shooting, the Spurs hung in early thanks to some cunning interior passing between the bigs. Tim Duncan had a handful of crafty bounce passes to the Aron Baynes, and it seemed like the kind of tactical bandage that would bridge the gap until they figured LA's defense out. But they were really the only times DeAndre Jordan seemed lost on the night, as the rangy center sent back four shots on the night. He even got help from frontcourt mate Griffin, who contributed another (uncharacteristic) three blocks to go with three steals.
San Antonio's bench showed its dominance over LA's in the second quarter once uncorked the hoop from three, and CP3's third foul before the half gave the Spurs the chance to go for a run, provided it could string a few baskets in a row. That proved nigh-impossible for the next 20 minutes of gameplay, with a particularly awful stretch coming in the early third, and a high number of second and third chances only providing further manifestations of the word 'futility'.
But really, credit for last night should go to Los Angeles, from the coaching staff and team's stars, down to the coach's oft-scorned son. They executed exceptionally well when Chris Paul and/or Blake Griffin were on the floor (which was a big portion of the game), with decisive passing that often resulted in open looks. Their spacing on defense was perfect, and San Antonio's players seemed to regularly second-guess themselves -- especially Kawhi, who faced a number of double teams when getting the ball in his favorite spots.
Paul used his ball-handling and change-of-pace ability to get to his spots all night. Tony struggled guarding him earlier, as did Green and even Kawhi in the second half. He played an all-around excellent game and his numbers show it: 32 points on 13-20 shooting, 7 boards, and 6 assists. He shot 3-5 on what were mostly wide-open three-point looks. A good defensive strategy on Paul might require giving him some space, but not that much.
And when Paul sat and the Clippers handed the keys of the offense to Jamal Crawford, but the free-styling guard, who'd been struggling through the end of the season, was able to hit pull-up after pull-up. When the game didn't resemble a WWE atmosphere, it resembled something out of NBA 2K, with Crawford, Paul and, perhaps more often than either, Griffin spinning and pirouetting to the basket.
Like an all-out wrestling melee, the second half didn't seem to offer much in terms of idiosyncrasy, as the pace picked up to a level that favored the home team. The Clippers paired raw athleticism and instinct with lethal shooting to make the most of the tempo, while getting back defensively and affording San Antonio few cracks in their D. The Spurs of old occasionally showed their faces:
But plays like that were few and far between. Players had open looks from distance, but they rarely seemed to catch the ball in rhythm. Again, credit to Doc Rivers and the execution of every player on the court, who all recognized that the best outcome of most possessions was Boris Diaw stepping into a long jumper.
Among the several struggles the Spurs have had on the road this season is their three-point shooting, which drops about 6% away from the AT&T Center. It was even worse tonight, with Danny Green's 1-for-7 line standing out the most. Green had his share of open looks -- they just didn't fall.
The questions moving into Game 2 hinge on health and defensive scheme: will Tiago be able to play more than 10 minutes? Aron Baynes and Boris Diaw both looked hopeless against Griffin. If not, another impressive line for the Clips power forward could be in the cards. Will the Spurs commit to one guy on Paul throughout the whole game instead of doing it by committee?
The shooting percentages should even out; Pop should find ways to beat the Clippers' double-teaming of Kawhi Leonard; Aron Baynes should overcome his Blake-induced shell-shock by Wednesday, and the end result should be closer. As always, in Pop we trust.
Tim Duncan. The team's most effective starter and the guy who kept them in it in the first half. Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli were bright spots off the bench, and Kawhi had some solid numbers, but it was Duncan's presence more than anyone else's that seemed to even the balance on both ends of the floor.
By the numbers:
53.8: The Spurs' percentage from the free-throw line.
41.7: DeAndre Jordan's percentage from the free-throw line, on 5-of-12 shooting.
36.6: The Spurs' percentage from the field.
15: The difference in attempted threes by San Antonio to make the same amount (10) as the Clippers.
7-33: The combined shooting between Danny Green, Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw.
17: The number of offensive rebounds the Spurs had. I won't check all the games from the regular season, but that might be a year-high, made all the more frustrating by the parade of bricks that accompanied them.
-21: The worst plus-minus of the night, belonging to Kawhi Leonard, a testament to the Clippers' excellent game plan in limiting The Claw's effectiveness.
The game in 140 characters or less:
Whatever happens, I blame this guy. pic.twitter.com/BcWuhxq8oR
— Caleb Saenz (@calebjsaenz) April 20, 2015
Oh look, it's every Spurs road game against a good team this season again. Why, what an unexpected occurrence.
— Michael Erler (@MichaelErlerSBN) April 20, 2015
That's about as tired as I've evern seen CP3 at the end of a game
— Amin Elhassan (@AminESPN) April 20, 2015
Silver Tynings Playbook:
Spurs were 13-33 on uncontested field goals; Clippers were 14-25. That's a big part of your story right there.
— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) April 20, 2015
The Clippers HAD to win this game tonight, btw. Will be interesting to see where this goes.
— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) April 20, 2015
Pop quote of the night:
"The game was their defense was better than our offense,"
Round Game 2 is Wednesday, and this series is far from over. GSG.