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Clippers dominance highlights the growing gap between the Spurs and contention

LA Clippers v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s not often an NBA team playing at full strength is outclassed the way the Spurs were in their Saturday evening loss to the visiting Clippers. Lacking the firepower to go toe to toe with the tandem of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Spurs needed to play with focus, discipline and more than a little luck to stay competitive, but managed to find none of the three.

The final score, a still pretty depressing 134-109, fails to capture just how hopeless the game felt once the Clips began to exert their will. For awhile, though, there was little indication of what was to come. The teams were knotted up at 44 for a brief moment just over 4 minutes into the 2nd quarter. But that first 16 minutes of game time was fool’s gold.

Over the ensuing 16 minutes, the Clippers outscored the Spurs by 25 points, hitting 100 - and thus invoking Lawler’s Law - with 4:07 still to go in the 3rd quarter. Basketball is a game of runs and players and teams have hot and cold nights. When a team on a heater meets a team that can’t buy a bucket, that kind of run will happen. But that’s not what happened here.

The Clippers outplayed the Spurs in almost every facet of the game. They protected the ball, giving up only 12 turnovers to the Spurs’ 18. Crucially, only 5 of the Clippers turnovers were steals, while 11 of the Spurs’ were. The Clips protected the glass, too, allowing the Spurs to pull down less than 13% of their available misses, while the visitors secured nearly 30% of theirs.

The Spurs had no answer for the Clippers’ offense. Kawhi Leonard scored at will, putting up 26 points on 18 shooting possessions in only 27 minutes, and found cutters and wide open shooters whenever the Spurs managed to keep him away from the basket. Leonard’s 9 assists came on 6 shots at the rim and 3 three-pointers. They didn’t do much better on Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, who combined for 40 points and terrorized the Spurs in the pick and roll.

Afterwards, Coach Gregg Popovich said the “Clippers had a game tonight” before discussing the points off turnovers and in the paint that were the key difference in the contest. While it’s always good to recognize your opponent’s successes, the utter completeness of this loss should demand a more thorough accounting of the issues that have led the team to this point, at least internally.

It’s not a surprise that the Clippers are the better team, but that they are this much better highlights the Spurs’ lack of progress so far this season. Whether or not that will lead to changes in the rotation or to the roster is very much in question, but it’s never been more clear just how far the team has fallen, or how much higher they have to climb to get back into contention.

Game Notes

First, the positives.

  • Dejounte Murray and Marco Belinelli combined to shoot 6/8 from deep. Dejounte is now 8/33 from three this season, including 4/13 from the corner. Those aren’t good numbers, but he needs to keep taking the open looks defenses give him, especially from the corners. At the same time, Marco appears to have shot through his slump. For the bench-Marco crowd, that’s not good news. But since the Spurs appear intent on continuing to play him regardless, at least it’ll make a little more sense with him hitting threes.
  • Jakob Poeltl’s one-man block party continues. With 4 more rejections tonight in just under 16 minutes of playing time, Jakob is now 12th in the league in total blocks. He’s played fewer minutes than any player ahead of him, and would likely be in the top 5 with starter’s minutes.
  • DeMar DeRozan had another efficient performance, with 24 points on 16 shooting possessions in just under 25 minutes. He missed his only three-pointer, but went 6 for 6 from the free throw line and hit 9/13 from inside the arc.
  • Chimezie Metu got in the game in garbage time. There was a lot of it, which is a good thing in this case, because Chimezie actually looked pretty good, though he made just 1 of his 5 shots and had a turnover in his 8 minutes of play.
  • Sorry, that’s it.

Now, the bad stuff.

  • The Clippers took 42% of their shots at the rim and made nearly 80% of them (31/39). Some of that had to do with live ball turnovers that led to easy run outs. Some of it had to do with poor rebounding that gave up easy put backs. And some of it had to do with plain old bad defense. Giving up that many shots at the rim and allowing your opponent to shoot that well on them takes a total team effort in every phase of the game.
  • The Spurs don’t have anyone in the rotation who can deal with large wings. That’s obviously a bit of a problem against the Clippers who have both Leonard and George. DeMar DeRozan’s defensive limitations are well known, and while he consistently plays at the top of his game against Leonard, he’s still only passable. Rudy Gay simply isn’t quick enough at this stage of his career to handle the job, as evidenced by the Clips’ star duo taking turns blowing by him en route to the rim on back to back possessions in the 1st quarter. Marco is a straight up mismatch when he gets switched onto either of them, Lonnie Walker IV is still working his way into the rotation and DeMarre Carroll hasn’t even made it that far, yet. That leaves Derrick White and Dejounte Murray to do the job. While both are outstanding, they give up far too much size to really be effective without help against such talented offensive players.

Next game: @ Grizzlies on Monday

The Spurs will take the short trip to Memphis for the teams’ 2nd match up of the season.