In my January 18 post written at the season's midway point, shortly after Kahwi's return, I wrote:
For the Spurs, their season began last night when Kawhi returned. His return followed the prior return of Splitter and Patty Mills -- and meant that we finally get to see how the Spurs will play with the entire cast in place. I believe Kawhi's absence in the middle of the season last year may have contributed to his freshness in the playoffs last season -- the same may be true this year.
My prediction may have been right. As noted by many of my fellow Pounders, Kawhi has evolved into a striking two-way force. Perhaps Kawhi's time off this season, first for the eye infection, and then the hand injury, may have both avoided an extra 18 games of pounding and allowed Kawhi to mentally focus on what he needed to do to rise to the next level.
Of course, the same explanation may apply to Blake Griffin. After missing several weeks with an elbow injury, he has returned fresher and better than ever, just like Kawhi did the past two years.
Blake's alter ego in the Kia commercials is a time travelling jet fighter pilot, Roman general, or gunfighter. (As a side note, the tough thing about being a gunfighter? Everyone trying to kill you is undefeated).
Kawhi doesn't have an alter ego yet - but I have one for him: Jimmy Chitwood, the star player from the best basketball movie ever made -- Hoosiers. Like Kawhi, Chitwood was the best player on the team, and his game was totally stripped down of any flash or embellishment. The capper? In Hoosiers, Jimmy Chitwood spoke a total of four lines during the entire movie. Sound like someone we know?
In the first half last night, Blake's gunfighter totally outplayed the Spurs' Jimmy Chitwood. In fact, Griffin had one of the best first halves I remember seeing. He had 21 points on 7 of 10 from the floor and 7 of 8 from the line. He also had 8 boards, 3 assists and 3 steals, with zero turnovers and zero fouls. Remarkable.
Even more remarkable, the Spurs were only down one at half, after playing an atrocious first 10 minutes: At the 1:30 mark the Clippers had more than doubled up on the Spurs, 27 -13. Just a baker's dozen of points in the first 10 minutes of a Game Five? Spurs fans were wondering what happened to the Beautiful Game San Antoino made famous last year.
Luckily, the Foreign Legion/Bench Crew scored 8 in a row, with 2 free throws by Belinelli, a 3 from Mills, a 2 from Diaw and a layup by Manu, making the score a not-so-embarrassing 27 - 22. That late run was made possible on the defensive end by Pop throwing a quick zone at the Clippers, momentarily flummoxing a smooth running Clipper offense to that point, highlighted by Griffin's early 13 points and Chris Paul's 6 assists.
That first quarter Clippers team is tough be beat. The Clippers team that is not as tough to beat? One that has a Clippers bench player on the floor. In particular, Doc Rivers' son returned to being Austin Rivers after his one shining moment in Game Four. In the second quarter, Rivers the junior was solely responsible for an extremely rare 7 point swing. At one end, he jacked up an inexcusable 3 pointer with 16 seconds on the shot clock, with no one else over half-court for the Clippers. That brick led immediately to a Patty Mills 3 that became a four point play when Rivers hit him on the head on the release. Boom - 7 point swing.
Also deserving mention was a play that happened a minute early. Big Banger Baynes tried to take a charge on Big Baby Davis. I live in West LA, about 7 miles west of Staples Center. When Davis and Baynes collided, my house shook, women screamed out, and my cat ran and hid in the closet.
Contrast the Clippers bench with the Spurs (once again). Mills, of course, was great. Manu was effective. Diaw was largely effective, and then huge (in a good way) down the stretch. And in a classic Pop mode, he rescued Aron Baynes from the end of the bench to play 12 key minutes. The Spurs were +9 while Baynes was on the court.
All that being said, the Spurs were able to win with only one bench player (Mills) and one starter (Duncan) having an above-average game. They did so largely because that one starter took it upon himself to say "somebody needs to stop the gunfighter" - and like Gary Cooper in High Noon, the old gunfighter stopped the young one. Duncan spent most of the second half guarding Griffin. Griffin's 21 points on 7 for 10 shooting in the first half turned into 9 points on 3 for 15 shooting in the second. The 7 for 8 on free throws turned into 3 for 6 in the second half. Most importantly, zero turnovers in the first half turned into five turnovers in the second half.
But, as games often do, this one came down to one play. After the Spurs once again coughed up a seemingly safe lead, DeAndre Jordan's offensive goal tending was so obvious that not even Reggie Miller could complain. The Spurs know all too well how an entire 82 game season plus playoffs can be swung by a single play -- which is why last year's Spurs decided it was safer to just blow teams out.
If the Spurs win at home Thursday, the Clippers' season may be defined by that play. Strangely, Chris Paul's legacy of not being able to win the big one may be confirmed in the minds of some - because of a play in which he was not involved.
1. One of a coach's toughest decisions is what to do with a struggling player. In this case, Danny Green. After coming up huge in the last two playoff runs, Green has struggled mightily in this one. I actually thought Pop might start Manu in this game, trying to recreate the Manu Game Five from two seasons ago. If Manu was two years younger, Pop might have done it. However, Green has done something that makes him valuable even when his shot is not falling. His ability to defend, and in particular his ability to defend CP3, means that Pop can justify still playing him even when his shot is not falling. Even so, it sure would have been nice if Green knocked down that 3 on the great pass from Kawhi with 6 seconds left.
2. Speaking of Manu, I don't remember many playoff games where he was on the bench for the last 10 minutes (he did play the last 4 seconds.) Strange, especially with Green not shooting well, and Manu being productive when he played. Of course, Patty Mills, he of the 4 for 4 from 3, didn't play the last 11 minutes. Once again, we are forced to fall back on "In Pop we trust." Which has worked out quite well over the years.
3. Jordan is a terrific player with a fatal flaw. Don't be surprised if the Clippers offer Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland a million dollars and a condo in Malibu to spend a month with Jordan solving his free throw problem. On a related point, it is fascinating that Jordan is now trying to fire up a 3 pointer as he is getting fouled. I am looking forward to someone like Matt Bonner faking the Hack-a-Jordan, trying to induce Jordan to fire one up from 30 feet as Bonner rushes at him. That would be hilarious.
4. Speaking of hilarious: In the LA Times this morning, Doc Rivers was complaining about the officiating. The hilarious part? Rivers, who complains on every call (he even complained on the Jordan offensive goaltend) was quoted as saying: "Guys, I don't complain much..." [Editor's note: I guess much is a relative term. -jrw]
5. Spurs have home court for Game 5. In this series, that has meant virtually nothing. Home teams are 2 - 3 in this series.
6. Finally, back to Jimmy Chitwood. Kawhi got the key offensive rebound at the end - and then knocked down the two clinching free throws. Perhaps he used one of Jimmy's four lines in Hoosiers before those shots: "I'll make it". The fact that Kawhi then did so may give him confidence that he can do so again in similar situations in the future. If the Spurs can "steal one" at home Thursday night, those situations may come up sooner than later.