Manu Ginobili is a man of many interests and skills. In addition to being a competitive loon, a contortionist, a daredevil, a visionary, a prankster and a madman, he's also the Spurs' chief linguist and wordsmith. The thing is, on top of all that Ginobili is also a bit of a math geek, which results, on occasion, in worlds colliding and the Argentine legend filling up reporters' notebooks with quotes about "regression to the mean."
Through four games the Spurs shot 34-of-107 on three-pointers, which works out to 31.8 percent. During the 82-game regular season, they finished fifth in the league, at 36.7 percent. It stood to reason that eventually the percentages would catch up with them and that certain cold individuals such as Ginobili, Danny Green, Boris Diaw and Tony Parker would get hot.
Well, yes and no, as it turned out. Green only made 1-of-5 and Parker missed his only long-ball (and 10-of-15 shots overall) and the red-hot Kawhi Leonard fell back down to Earth. However everyone else in black ripped the nets and the Spurs wound up making 11-of-23 overall (47.8 percent) from downtown, which was by far the biggest reason they found a way to sneak out of the Staples Center with another 111-107 road win. A team that was relatively awful away from the AT&T Center all season long will now get a chance to close out a maddeningly confounding Clippers squad there Thursday night.
That the Spurs won another tight, tense, dramatic game at the wire wasn't surprising. What was shocking however was the how quickly they picked themselves off the mat after falling behind 27-13 ten minutes into the game. Early on, everything that could go wrong, did for the visitors. Parker couldn't get short jumpers to fall and Green was frigid from deep. The transition defense was terrible and Blake Griffin was hitting every mid-range jumper. Gregg Popovich tried to change momentum by inserting his bench into the game, but for some reason Patty Mills was initiating every action, completely getting tied up by Chris Paul and the Spurs kept turning it over. The Clippers were threatening to make it a laugher.
Once Paul went to the bench though, fortunes turned for the Spurs. In desperation, Pop went to a 2-3 zone and the Clippers bench, buoyed by Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford in Game 4, went cold. The offense started running through Ginobili and Boris Diaw again. Mills was put in the position of being the finisher instead of the play-maker, and he simply couldn't miss. The Spurs went on a 15-0 run to quiet the crowd and from there the game went back and forth the rest of the way, neither team leading by more than a handful.
Unlike Game 4, where nearly everyone that Doc Rivers played produced, this time out the Clippers' "big three" of Griffin, Paul and DeAndre Jordan were stranded by their supporting cast. Not only was their bench terrible, but even J.J. Redick, who gave them 13 points, was poor defensively and wound up fouling out late. The brilliance of Griffin got the Clippers into the locker room with a 54-53 lead, as he had 21 points at half, but they had to get their points two at a time and the strain was starting to show. Though there were a couple of pretty passing sequences like this...
the Spurs were mostly a horror show offensively, with sloppy turnovers and limited ball movement, but their three-point shooting was keeping them in the game.
The Spurs didn't shoot too well in the second half, but at times they whizzed the ball around the way they did against Oklahoma City and Miami last May and June. Fatigue started to hit both teams and mid-range jumpers that were swishing through the nets in the first half were coming up short now. San Antonio's superior depth started making its presence felt, and Pop's decision to employ "Hack-a-Jordan" helped them open up a short-lived cushion.
Yet for every example of "the beautiful game" like this...
there were silly, costly turnovers by Ginobili, or soft interior defense against Griffin or not enough people making open shots. It was tied after three quarters, with both coaches throwing the kitchen sink at one another and growing exasperated that they couldn't find five competent, effective players to put on the floor.
The game couldn't get any tighter, but slowly but surely it was the Spurs who were applying the noose to their hosts. They were playing at their pace and they had more guys making plays. Marco Belinelli canned a pair of threes at the death of the third quarter and to open the fourth. Green made a pair of long twos to get himself going. Leonard scored six, making all four of his freebies, and had a gorgeous open-floor assist to Diaw for a huge three. Parker started getting into the paint and got a couple of buckets to go, along with this feed to Duncan.
Most of all, the fourth quarter belonged to Diaw, who looked slow and sluggish for much of the first half and found himself benched for getting in foul trouble. After an anonymous first 36 minutes, Bobo had eight in the fourth quarter, including the aforementioned corner three. It was this bit of "turning lemons into lemonade," that made you suspect that this was the Spurs night, however.
This being the Spurs on the road, a 103-96 lead late was hardly safe. Possessions dried up, the offense stagnated, and even Griffin's 1-of-9 fourth quarter (plus 0-of-2 free throws and three turnovers) wasn't enough to ice the game. Paul was masterful late. When the Spurs paid too much attention to him, he hockey-assisted plays that resulted in easy dunks for Jordan. When they played him straight up, he got an "and-1" layup against Duncan. Green had a couple of jumpers that could've ensured the game, but they both bricked.
Duncan had a huge block on Griffin to save one potential game-tying hoop...
but still the Clippers trailed by just one and had the ball with seven seconds to left. With Leonard tying up Paul, Griffin tried a quick hitter in the lane over a contesting Duncan. The ball looked like it was about to trickle just out, but Jordan tipped it in while it was still above the cylinder. The refs rightly waved it off, and the Spurs held on once more, by the slimmest of margins.
After being obliterated by Griffin for six straight quarters, the regression to the mean bit the Clippers springy All-Star, as he finished 3-of-15 in the second half, missing several point-blank looks. L.A. wound up shooting worse on uncontested jumpers (8-of-29, 27.6 percent) than contested ones (32-of-57, 56.1 percent). San Antonio's best defense turned out to be packing the paint and leaving people the hell alone.
Good luck figuring this series out. The Clippers have three great players, one of whom is an offensive liability. No one for the Spurs is playing that well except for Duncan and Leonard. Tiago Splitter is an injured mess, Ginobili is too turnover-prone to be trusted for long stretches, Green can't make anything and Parker is gamely trying to play on with a broken everything. Patty Mills is their hottest shooter right now, and he made like 13 shots all season. It's two teams trying to kill each other for the right to get ground into a fine paste by the Warriors, which makes it sound like a pointless exercise, yet it's the most compelling thing in sports at the moment.
On to Game 6 and only one real question is left to be answered.
Will the Spurs regress, or will they get mean?
Your Three Stars:
3. Manu Ginobili (5 pts)
2. Boris Diaw (3 pts)
1. Tim Duncan (13 pts)
[Players receive 5 points for first star, 3 points for second star and 1 point for third star. Numbers in parentheses are their accumulated totals for the postseason.]