The Clippers are the best offensive team in the league
The Clippers' offense shouldn't work as well as it does. Like the Spurs, they start two big men with no three-point range -- one of whom mostly scores on point blank shots -- and a league average three-point shooter at small forward. And just like the Spurs, they use interior passing between the bigs to prevent the paint from being too crowded; a creative point guard to get the defense off balance; and a long range threat at shooting guard to punish distracted defenses. The only difference between the two team's approach to offense is that the Clippers are better are it.
Blake Griffin is arguably the best passing big man in the game. He's one of just 24 players to average over five assists per game and the only forward other than LeBron James to do so. He has developed unbelievable chemistry with DeAndre Jordan, to the point where plays are drawn up for Griffin to throw lobs to his center. The rest of the starting lineup doesn't feature gifted playmakers except for Chris Paul, the league's assists leader. Everyone knows how good Paul is at this point so I'll just point out his 4.4 assist-to-turnover ratio and say no more. Except this: his pick and rolls with either Griffin or Jordan are deadly because of his patience and court vision.
Paul and Griffin use most of the possessions available when the starting lineup is on the court but the Clippers get weird in first quarters. You know how Pop will sometimes try to get Danny Green involved early? Doc Rivers makes it a point to get J.J. Redick some shots as soon as he can. Six of his 16 points per game come in the first quarter an he shoots 53 percent from the field in that period. He never stops moving and punishes any defender who struggles navigating through screens. Reddick ranks second in the league in the percentage of his offense coming off screens behind only Kyle Korver and he still manages to rank in the 86th percentile in points per possession at that usage. A play in which he cuts baseline, uses a Barnes screen then backtracks is deadly.
One of the reasons why Reddick is über-aggressive in the first quarter is because he is forced to take a backseat when Jamal Crawford comes in off the bench. The three guard lineup with Paul, Redick and Crawford is the second most used unit for the Clippers. When the reining Sixth Man of the Year checks in, he uses a lot of possessions and scores efficiently. Los Angeles somehow gets even more deadly on offense when he's in, averaging a ridiculous 119 points per 100 possessions. The defense, however, suffers greatly, conceding and offensive rating of 109.
The Clippers' biggest weakness is famously their weak bench. Every single rotation bench player has a negative net rating except for Crawford and Hedo Turkoglu, who barely ranks as a positive. The all-sub lineup of Rivers, Crawford, Turkoglu, Davis and Hawes scores just 98 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank 27th in the league over a full season. Offensively, the bench is not a threat at all.
How the Spurs can neutralize it
Containing Reddick early on is a must. If Reddick loses his man in the screens, the big should probably switch to prevent an open look.
Of course the result then is a big, typically Blake Griffin, being guarded by a wing. That's why even though Green is better at navigating off ball screens than Leonard, Kawhi could get the assignment. Leonard at least has a shot at containing Griffin in the perimeter, keeping the big from having to help while leaving Jordan open near the basket, where he will catch any lob.
One of the keys against the Clippers is to not over-help. Griffin and Paul are so deadly that's it's tempting to send an extra guy to contain them, but they are also incredibly smart about getting the ball to the open man and Reddick and Jordan know how to get open. The pick and rolls are deadly, especially when both Jordan and Griffin sets screens for Paul up top at the same time, taking both bigs away from the paint.
Splitter and Diaw will need to leave Griffin open from mid-range and handle him one on one as much as possible or the Clippers will pick the Spurs' defense apart. The same applies to the help defender and whoever guards Paul. He will hit elbow jumpers but he's often a reluctant shooter early in the game and the alternative is leaving someone else open either from three or near the rim.
When their bench checks in, there will be a temptation to play Marco Belinelli and have an all-offense lineup against such a limited scoring unit. The Spurs must resist it and have one of Green or Leonard on the court checking Crawford because he can get hot at any time.
If all else fails, intentionally fouling DeAndre Jordan is always an option.
The Clippers are mediocre on defense
The Clippers rank exactly 15th in defensive rating, proof of their mediocrity on that end. Their starting lineup is decent, but not great, and their bench an abject disaster. The only plus defenders in the roster are Paul, Barnes and Jordan. Crawford is a sieve, Reddick is disciplined but limited, and Griffin gets lost when he's the last line of defense. The Clippers will try to beat the Spurs with offense because that's the only way they can.
How the Spurs can exploit those flaws
When they are expecting a play, the Clippers are competent so the Spurs need to force them to scramble. Going with extended pick and rolls in which the ball handler passes to someone else, who then makes the pass to the dive man could yield good results when Griffin is defending the play, as he often jumps out too far as he tries to trap.
If the screener is Jordan's (or Hawes') man and he commits, an easy layup or open three should result more often than not, assuming Griffin is the rim protector. He hesitates too much between covering the shooter or the dive man and doesn't have the length to recover.
Diaw hitting three-pointers would also open things up. The Clippers are the worst team in the league at defending the pick and roll, so if the Spurs vary their attack enough to keep them guessing, they should be able to score with ease.
If the Spurs are picking apart their defense, the Clippers will simply try to outscore them with their three-guard lineup. Kawhi Leonard needs to make them pay by either scoring on the smaller player or finding the open man if they help. It's possible Doc Rivers puts Paul on Leonard, in which case the Spurs should have Parker attack either Crawford or Reddick. Paul is small but a sneaky good post defender. Falling in love with the perceived mismatch would probably be detrimental.
Keeping it simple when going against their bench is in is a must. There's no need for risky passes or hero-ball moments against such a defensively-challenged group. Executing as usual should be enough to get good shots up and turnovers would be killers, as they could result in easy points for a unit that struggles scoring.
There are no secrets in this end. The Clippers are not very good and the Spurs are disciplined enough on offense to take advantage.
Conclusion and prediction
Splitter's injury could not have come at a worse time. This is exactly the type of series in which he's sorely needed. Hopefully he will be in good enough shape to give the team a solid 20 minutes because his pick and roll defense and his ability to stay with quick players (like Griffin) are key for the Spurs' defense. No one will shut down an offense as good as the Clippers', but if everyone is focused the Spurs should be able to contain it enough to give themselves a shot. No over helping and no turnovers: that's the mantra.
If they do, they should be in a great position to take advantage of a spotty defense. No team wins 57 while being a pushover but the Clippers have serious flaws that they try to mask with raw athleticism. The Spurs are supposed to be just the type of team that kills opponents that are not disciplined. If the system is not creating good looks, Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker will be called on to provide that scoring punch. In that case, they must be assertive.
Every game in this series should be a close one but there will be at least one night in which the Clippers' offense will open up a big lead. But if Splitter is in rhythm and the Spurs don't panic, that should be the exception and not the rule.
The Clippers are a formidable opponent but the Spurs should be able to get past them if they are patient and disciplined. I don't expect it to be a gentleman's sweep in the traditional sense but, again, if Splitter can play as well as he was before the injury, I can see the Spurs winning in five competitive games.
For the opponent's perspective, visit our friends over at the great Clips Nation. And be nice if you do.