First round vs. LA Game 6: Clippers 102, Spurs 96 Series tied: 3-3
The 2013-14 Spurs are probably my all-time favorite single-season team, in any year, any sport. You watch their iconic playoff games against Oklahoma City or Miami, or you watch those "The Beautiful Game" clips on YouTube, and it all seems so easy, so effortless, so uncomplicated.
It's not easy. It's anything but effortless. And it's so intricate, the timing and floor balance and spacing and the perfect five man choreography, the synchronicity, of both bodies and the ball, that just visualizing it on a three-dimensional plane makes your head spin. It's so delicate, so intricate, like a spider web on hardwood. When it works, it's deadly. When there's a flaw, you wind up getting stuck. So often we hear the Spurs get compared to a finely-tuned machine, but even the best Serbian engineering gets a faulty gear now and again, causing the entire engine to blow a gasket and its particular engineer to blow a fuse.
Or maybe sometimes the parts just get worn down from overuse and fatigue and have to be replaced.
The champion Spurs, who put together a performance for the ages last spring in one of the greatest redemptive stories in professional team sports, brought everyone back to defend their title. At times, they've looked plenty capable of pulling it off, especially at the AT&T Center, where they've run plenty of teams, both good and bad, off the gym. Other times they've struggled. The ball got stuck, too many guys who deserve to get statues sculpted of them looked statuesque, and the darn ball just refused to go in with the same frequency as we've grown accustomed to.
You don't want to read it, because it's sad, but in a way this makes it even easier to appreciate what they accomplished last season. If it was easy, anybody could do it. Being the best is never easy. The best, by definition, just make it look that way. The Spurs lost a closeout game at home to the younger, springier --and yes, more determined-- Clippers and now find themselves on the brink. An elimination game, on the road, Saturday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The road team has won four of the last five games in this series, but it is asking an awful, awful lot for the Spurs to win their third game in a row at L.A.
"Our execution on the offensive end was really poor," explained a grim Gregg Popovich after the game. "No excuse for it, just poor. We should be embarrassed at the way we came out for a closeout game in every regard."
I too am embarrassed to admit to being surprised by the Clippers tenacity and fight in this one. I thought the Spurs would win going away. The crowd was certainly hyped and so were the Spurs. Perhaps too much so, in the opening quarter, where they threw it away eight times and shot only 43 percent. Alarmingly, Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio's best player, was awful at both ends, repeatedly letting himself getting screened by J.J. Redick on one end and tossing up bricks from close range on the other. The Clips, Redick aside, shot poorly too, however, and the home side was fortunate to come out of the first tied 26-26.
Leonard would go on to finish 3-of-15 for 12 points, and a team-worst -19 in 40:19. Redick had 19 on 7-of-12 for the Clippers, one of the few for either squad to finish above 50 percent.
"He had a tough night at both ends of the floor," Popovich conceded. "He just didn't play well... We didn't lose because of Kawhi Leonard. We lost because the Clippers were determined, physical, focused, played harder than we did and we were soft with loose balls."
That may all be true, but let the record show that they were up nine, 42-31 after Marco Belinelli drilled his fourth consecutive three-pointer, with 7:52 to go in the second quarter. They maintained that lead for a couple more minutes of Hack-a-Jordan, where DeAndre Jordan made 4-of-8 free throws. The critical element though was that Tim Duncan committed his second foul on one of those intentional "hacks," because apparently he was confused.
(I asked him afterward if he or his teammates were having communication issues with the tactic, and Duncan didn't believe that to be the case. "A little bit but not too much," he said. "I think we have done a pretty good job with it. I think everyone is pretty aware of how many fouls they have, the situations, and who has the least amount of fouls.")
When Duncan was called for his third foul, again on Jordan but not an intentional one, he had to leave the game with 3:59 to go in the half. And from there the Spurs died before us on both ends. It was 51-51 at half and the Clippers had taken the Spurs best punch.
You may recall that during the one blowout win the Spurs had, in Game 3, they never fouled Jordan at all. Now correlation isn't causation, but to me Hack-a-Jordan is analogous to the old pragmatic cliche about why coaches prefer to run the football rather than pass it: Only three things can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad. Similarly, almost everything with Hack-a-Jordan has a negative consequence, even when it doesn't appear to be the case. The clock stops unnecessarily. Offensive efficiency suffers because the half-court defense is always set. There is no potential for live-ball turnovers and/or transition points. Players you rely on get in needless foul trouble. It's one thing to do it as a "momentum changer," when you're trailing, but why resort to it when everything is already going in your favor? The Clippers were missing almost every shot as it was and the Spurs were getting open looks on the other end. The game was on the verge of being busted open.
It wasn't to be.
The Spurs starting unit that had been dominant for the past two months ground to a halt again in the third quarter, missing eight of their first nine shots. The seemingly tireless Blake Griffin capitalized on the other end and suddenly the Clippers forged ahead by nine, after Matt Barnes tossed in a three-pointer off a loose ball. The Spurs clawed to a 70-70 tie behind their bench, led by Belinelli, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills, but a 16-footer by Paul put the Clippers ahead 74-72 with 38 seconds to go in the quarter and the Clippers would hold the Spurs at arm's length from then on, the proverbial Sisyphus, never quite managing to push that boulder all the way up the hill. Leonard missed an open three that would've tied it with 39 seconds to go, and Paul hit a short floater on the other end soon after to ice it. Tellingly, Belinelli and Mills were on the floor for a critical defensive possession.
Pop made it clear he thought his guys played like a bunch of sissies at the podium, and far too many Spurs moved as if boulders were strapped to their backs.
"We had a hard time getting open," he said. I think their phsyicality in that regard was great and we were just soft. It hurt. I don't know how we stayed in the game to be honest with you. It was very disappointing to see the group approach."
The Spurs finished with a respectable 26 assists and committed just six turnovers over the final three quarters while shooting a solid 42.9 percent from deep. They just didn't make enough of the easy ones in close, were bad from the free throw line (12-of-21) and didn't get what they needed from Leonard but also Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili (5-of-18 combined). When Pop wondered how the Spurs stayed in the game, surely he referenced unexpected Herculean efforts from Belinelli and Diaw, who combined for 40 points on 15-of-24 shooting.
As well as their role players played, the Spurs best players didn't show up, Duncan aside. It's looking like a painful, dispiriting end for Ginobili, and Parker doesn't seem like he can hang on for much longer either.
Duncan very much put on a brave face after, in keeping with not only his character but his current form. It was noticeably harder for his "Big Three" brethren to show similar confidence. Their bodies are betraying them and their spirit is waning. Ginobili has admitted to reporters that he isn't bothered by playing in the teens when it comes to minutes or even not being on the floor in crunch time. It's all he's got left in his legs, he says.
Maybe the Spurs will pull a surprise and win again Saturday night to extend their season. Maybe they'll be too stubborn to quit or youngsters like Leonard and Green will get hot. Maybe that cranky old engine will turn one last time, far past the warranty date.
The end is coming though, and sooner than we were prepared for.
I've enjoyed the ride and never took it for granted. I hope you can say the same.
Your Three Stars:
3. Tim Duncan (14 pts)
2. Boris Diaw (6 pts)
1. Marco Belinelli (6 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 season.]