The Spurs simply cannot handle prosperity. We've seen it all season long. Just when you think they've got the world by the tail, they wind up walking off defeated, with their tails between their legs.
They'd make spirited comebacks late in fourth quarters at Brooklyn, or against the Lakers, or against the Blazers, only to give the games away in overtime. They won eleven straight games in March and April to get a potential second seed on their racquet, only to lose at New Orleans in Game 82 to the drop to the sixth seed. It's keeping with the running theme of the season, in a situation where they fought to gain home court advantage with a tough overtime win in Los Angeles and then decimated the Clippers in Game 3 at home, that once more the Spurs gave away all those gains with a dispiriting loss at the AT&T Center Sunday afternoon.
"I think in general we lacked a lot of discipline," Gregg Popovich explained after the game. "We didn't execute sharply enough in what we wanted to do strategy-wise or just in general basketball play. I thought we were just not very wise in a lot of situations. The period where we just gave six free throws in a row for fouls that were just absolutely meaningless for no reason. We had some periods in the game like that, which were disappointing."
The free throws Popovich was referring to came late in the third quarter. In a back-and-forth game where the Clippers predictably came out a lot harder after getting wiped out in Game 3, the game was the Spurs led 70-69 and had forced Doc Rivers hand with their Hack-a-Jordan intentions. Jordan missed a pair of free-throws and Rivers pulled him from the game with 2:46 left in the quarter. Remarkably, the Spurs then took three needless fouls on Chris Paul, with Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili the guilty parties, and Ginobili's foul, a reach-in, was the most egregious of all. Paul nailed all six, and the Spurs, trailing 81-76 after three quarters, never led again.
That the game was even in doubt at that point had to be an ominous sign. For once the Spurs were unable to find that one 17-2 home run that has been their trademark at home. Typically, it has been Ginobili at the heart of those runs, but more recently it's been Kawhi Leonard. The outburst of quick scoring, forced turnovers and mad bombs from long range have gotten the Spurs back into games that seemed lost or allowed them to distance themselves when games were close. It just never happened today. The Clippers always answered, whether it was Paul sinking another mid-range fadeaway, Blake Griffin getting another "and-1" inside or Austin Rivers canning another long-two.
You read that right. A major reason the Spurs need to win another game at L.A. is because Rivers had the game of his life, with 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting. It's the downside of the gamble of Popovich electing to use Mills instead of Cory Joseph. Rivers (or Paul) went at Mills repeatedly all game, almost always with positive results.
"He was an offensive punch we did not expect," conceded Ginobili, diplomatically. "He was a big key for them. He gave them a big, big boost."
Rivers was hardly the only Clipper to smoke the nets. Paul, J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford, who were a combined 6-of-29 in Game 3, shot 23-of-44 this time around, mostly on long twos and tough floaters inside. Similar to Game 1, the Clippers shot 52 percent on 48 contested shots and 56 percent on 36 uncontested looks, per SporsVU (h/t to Paul Garcia of ProjectSpurs.com). The Spurs defense wasn't too bad, when they weren't fouling, but the Clippers just didn't miss too many shots in succession to fuel any big runs and they had only 10 turnovers and many live ones at that. The Spurs had three steals all game, and none from Leonard. Fatigue, with that quick turn-around from late Friday night to this afternoon start that practically made it a back-to-back, may have been an issue.
"You can blame it on whatever you want, a lack of focus or whatever else," said Tim Duncan afterward. I thought we were competing and I thought we were there, we just couldn't make stops in a row."
The Spurs eventually lost contact with the Clippers because they couldn't keep up the scoring pace. Duncan was brilliant in the second half --20 points!-- and finished with 22 and 14, while Tony Parker had eight early points, but the two combined to miss eight free throws, with each going 0-for-2 on a pair of trips to the line to deflate the crowd. Ginobili had some good moments early on but had three turnovers to go along with a couple of dumb fouls, while Danny Green took the collar from the field, missing all six of his threes.
San Antonio made just 6-of-25 from downtown, a major reason they could never get any momentum going. The points never came in bunches for them. Green and Parker missed a number of good looks. Mills and Leonard were "feeling themselves," as the kids say, with some of their efforts. The Clippers closed out hard and rotated well, but the Spurs ball movement was lacking far too much. They weren't passing up good for great and the ball was sticking. Splitter, still trying to regain his rhythm after missing the final two weeks of the regular season, was too soft and tentative around the rim and Parker wasn't moving it enough.
It was just a flat, depressing performance from the Spurs, beginning to end. Ginobili's go-to word for it is "inspired." The Clippers were inspired, and too many Spurs were not. In a telling sequence Pop repeatedly implored the team to foul Jordan late in the second quarter and no one paid attention to him for successive possessions. It was as if at first they assumed the Clippers would simply fold and then later individuals were trying to do too much. The most depressing part was that L.A. didn't really "out-athlete" them. They just played smarter, harder, with more focus, and shot way better. Now it's a best-of-three, with potentially two of those at their place.
At least over-confidence won't be an issue.
Your Three Stars:
3. Tony Parker (1 pt)
2. Tim Duncan (8 pts)
3. Kawhi Leonard (11 pts)
[Players receive 5 points for first star, 3 points for second star and 1 point for third star. Points in parentheses are their accumulated totals for the postseason.]