It's ironic, for all the rampant speculation of what the Spurs will look like when Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili finally decide to retire -- will they chase big names like Marc Gasol or LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency? -- fans have gotten a pretty extensive sneak preview all season long without realizing it.
Kawhi Leonard scored a career-high 32 points, Danny Green chipped in with a hat-trick of threes and stifling defense of Chris Paul, and the duo of Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter combined to torment Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan at both ends of the floor as the Spurs routed the Clippers to take a 2-1 series lead in their best-of-seven match-up.
"He did it the right way," said an impressed Duncan of Leonard after the game. "He stayed within our offense, he got some shots going early on, and I think he kind of got comfortable, got on a roll, and then you saw his difficulty going up, shooting over double-teams, fading away, making plays, and from there it was off to the races."
After clanking their way to a decisive loss in Game 1 and taking advantage of a late Griffin turnover to steal Game 2 at L.A., the Spurs returned at last to their familiar stomping grounds and ran roughshod over a clearly exhausted Clippers squad at the AT&T Center. That they won wasn't the story as much as how they won. Duncan, the hero of Game 2, admitted during the morning shoot-around he was still tired and sore after logging 44 grueling minutes in the overtime win on Wednesday. And he was in the best shape of the "Big Three." You can only imagine how Tony Parker, who had to check out of the last game due to persistent Achilles difficulties, and Ginobili, who is struggling to get past anyone these days, felt about the short turnaround.
The Clippers stars, meanwhile, were even in worse shape. Griffin played 90 minutes over the first two games, J.J. Redick 83, Jordan 82 and Paul 81. They finally felt the effects of it in Game 3, with Griffin noticeably sucking wind and tugging on his shorts midway through the second quarter. It certainly did not help their cause that the refereeing crew --perhaps anticipating the interminable Hack-a-Jordan that would never materialize -- let a lot of contact in the paint for both teams go. The game felt unusually fast-paced, as there just weren't many foul-related stoppages. It was like a hockey game, scrappy, end-to-end, lacking in flow at times, frenetic and charged. The two teams combined for just 25 free-throw attempts. As a consequence, the Clippers never got a chance to catch their collective breath.
There was even a hockey-style drop pass from Leonard to Diaw in the third quarter which led to a pair of free-throws for Diaw.
The Spurs jumped out to a 25-16 lead after one, with Leonard and Green combining for 15 points to Griffin and Paul's two. Both Splitter and Diaw had success crowding Griffin on post-ups, with Duncan hedging over in wait, unconcerned about Jordan. The home side have a wealth of what coach Gregg Popovich calls "corporate knowledge" and you saw it in action. The deeper they get into the series, the more they're getting a sense of what the Clippers tendencies are, where their hot spots on the floor are and what they're trying to do.
Paul had burned the Spurs during the first two games with pull-up threes in transition trailing the break. This time, Parker was ready for him and contested the shot just enough instead of being on his heels at the free-throw line, anticipating the drive. It's the little things.
Once the benches entered the fray, the Spurs had a chance to break it open. The flaw in the Clippers defensive scheme is that they readily concede open threes if opponents are patient enough to string a couple of passes together after a pick-and-roll. Patty Mills, who saved the Spurs in Game 2, and Matt Bonner missed three wide-open corner threes and a game the Spurs were seemingly dominating was still close on the scoreboard.
The Spurs finally wedged a gap late in the second quarter with a 9-2 run, created by the defensive efforts of Duncan and Green, who had a block and a steal respectively. Leonard, who received his Defensive Player of the Year award in a pregame ceremony, capped off the run in style, stretching for a slightly off-target lob pass from Green to slam it home.
"I think we should give him an award before every game" Diaw joked afterward.
It was only 41-33, but the Clippers never threatened again. Lob City is supposed to be their territory, and the Spurs Borg assimilated it, dispassionately.
Up 46-38 at halftime, the Spurs quickly turned it into a boat race, with Leonard scoring 13 in the third quarter and the home side enjoying separate runs of 8-0 and 12-4. Leonard danced around Jordan for layups, canned turnaround jumpers from the baseline reminiscent of a star from that other L.A. team and added another three for good measure. Paul, Redick and Jamal Crawford continued to miss jumpers for the Clippers, contested or otherwise. They would finish a combined 6-of-29.
The Spurs would lead by as much as 37, abusing Doc Rivers' awful bench. While it might have surprised a national audience that future Hall-of-Famers Duncan, Ginobili and Parker combined for just a dozen points --their lowest ever in a playoff win-- the truth is that the legendary trio have had numerous modest outings in blowout home wins over the season. More and more, the Spurs being at their best means that their legends don't have to be.
The old guard still contributed to the periphery. Duncan had three blocks and four assists on back cuts. Ginobili displayed an all-around floor game where he finished with six rebounds, six assists and two blocks of his own. Even Parker, on a bum wheel, was lively from opening tip and showed a willingness to get frisky with Paul.
This is what makes the Spurs the NBA's best bet to upset the history-making Warriors. They don't need their best players to play well to win. Or maybe the perception of who their best players actually are is outdated. There's little debate that Leonard, who still finds the postgame podium more intimidating than any opponent, has usurped Duncan as their best player. Green, Splitter and Diaw however all seem more vital barometers these days than Parker or Ginobili. In spite of that, opponents continue to game plan more to contain the legends than the so-called "role players," a market inefficiency Popovich continues to exploit.
In the near future the Spurs new "Big Three" could be Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and, uh, let's call him Borago Spliaw. It seems funny to read, but it's not all that different than what we've been watching.
Your Three Stars:
3. Manu Ginobili (4 pts)
2. Danny Green (3 pts)
1. Kawhi Leonard (6 pts)
[Players receive 5 points for first star, 3 points for second star and 1 point for third star. The numbers in parentheses are their accumulated totals for the playoffs.]