Sunday night was a checklist from a Spurs road game nightmare.
Lousy three-point shooting? Check.
Lousier free-throw shooting? Check.
Awful Tony Parker? The worst.
Turnovers? All the turnovers.
Inattentive transition defense? And how!
The opponent's best players going bonkers? The bonkeriest.
All season long we've seen the Spurs play like this away from the friendly confines of the AT&T Center. They play a poor half, find themselves only down a few points despite not doing anything remotely well and con you into thinking "Well, if they played that badly and only trail by six...
And then the third quarter starts and they crank up the suck to 11.
The Spurs went on a tear over the past two months because their starters were incredible as a unit, especially with Tiago Splitter. That was supposed to be their winning formula in the playoffs. Get out to a comfortable lead, then hold the fort with the bench (or possibly extend such leads against teams like the Clippers who have shallow benches).
It didn't go according to plan. Splitter, inactive the past two weeks because of his balky calf, looked slow, out of shape, and uncoordinated. He had no touch around the rim and was beaten downcourt several times. Danny Green was a disaster, taking a number of terrible shots and missing the good ones too. The worse he shot, the more he forced things instead of keeping the ball moving. It was a testament to how little stamina Gregg Popovich believes Manu Ginobili has left that Green was allowed to stay on the court for 29 wretched minutes.
But the biggest problem was Parker. Popovich started the game vanilla, with Parker "guarding" Chris Paul, and that went predictably. I understand the logic behind it, you don't want to get Green or Kawhi Leonard in early foul trouble. On the other end of the floor, in what's become an annual playoff tradition, Parker suffered an ankle injury and had zero burst to attack the paint. The Spurs offense clogged and they settled for a lot of bad looks late in the shot clock.
Most of the focus with Parker's play this season has been on his up-and-down scoring, but we've dropped the ball about his consistently terrible season as a defender and passer. He had the worst Defensive Box Plus/Minus year of his career, according to Basketball-reference.com. Meanwhile, ESPN's Defensive Real Plus/Minus had him as the second-worst defender among point guards, ahead of only Minnesota rookie Zach LaVine. As a passer, Parker had his worst assist percentage since 2003-04. He had one assist against the Clippers in 28:38 on Sunday, claiming afterward that the Clippers' hard-hedging took the ball out of his hands.
The bench got the visitors back in the game in the second quarter, with some play-making by Ginobili and marksmanship from Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli, and the Spurs took a brief 37-35 lead. It was all downhill from there. The offense went dry for four minutes, with seven missed shots and three turnovers, Hack-a-Jordan failed to close the gap, and the Spurs went into halftime trailing 49-43.
On cue, the third quarter was a horror show. The Spurs made just 9-of-29 shots (31 percent) despite taking only five three-pointers. They had eight offensive rebounds and turned them into four second-chance points, which sounds impossible. They made 1-of-6 free throws. Paul and Blake Griffin outscored them by themselves, 22-21. Parker turned into a ball hog while he was in there, putting up seven shots and committing a turnover in a 4:43 stretch. Once he checked out, the offense somehow got worse, with turnovers and desperate shots late in the shot clock. The Spurs went into the fourth trailing by 15 and the game was over.
You can accuse Doc Rivers of a lot of things, but he's not in denial about the makeup of his roster. He played his starters together for 25:09 and Jamal Crawford with some combination of them for most of the rest. Big Baby Davis and Austin Rivers got spot minutes, but it's a six-man team for the most part.
Gregg Popovich, after considerable prompting, explained that the crux of the game was the Clippers forcing the Spurs into bad looks and the numbers bare that out. The Spurs had 56 contested shots, compared to only 36 uncontested ones, according to SportsVU. Remarkably they shot better under pressure (38 percent) than when open (33 percent). The Clippers meanwhile, shot a respectable 46 percent on 52 contested shots and a scorching 62 percent on 26 uncontested shots.
Or maybe a better stat is that the Clippers shot a better percentage on threes (55.6, 10-of-18) than the Spurs did on ones (14-of-26 freebies, 53.8 percent).
Whatever. A half-dozen Spurs --Parker, Green, Splitter, Boris Diaw, Aron Baynes and Cory Joseph-- played about as poorly as they could possibly play. When Mills and Belinelli are your best performers, you're in for a long night.
Some of these things are correctable. Splitter will probably look more like his normal self on Wednesday. The Spurs will probably shoot better from the charity stripe, the three-point line and from all points in between. Jamal Crawford probably won't go nuclear the next game, though it's quite possible J.J. Redick will.
But what might not be fixable is the defense on Paul. The Spurs started with Parker on him but eventually tried Joseph, Green and Leonard. It simply did not matter. All it took was a simple pick and they all were taken out of the play. The Spurs bigs did not hedge hard because they feared the lob. Los Angeles didn't get any alley-oops, but Paul still unlocked the defense to get Griffin plenty of dunks over poor Baynes' head. I don't know how much the Spurs defense can improve in this series. They just have to hope the Clippers shoot worse.
Not having home court advantage when you're this bad on the road means you get zero mulligans at home. As long as the Spurs win their three home games, they just have to win one out of the four games in L.A. Just be good 25 percent of the time.
Which is just about the success rate they had when visiting quality teams during the regular season.