The book being drafted by most of the league on Chris Kaman instructs teams to swarm the Clippers’ big man with double-teams when he catches the ball at 15 feet. But Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s reading list is self-authored and it reads something like this: “We’re the San Antonio Spurs. We deploy a stay at home strategy. If a guy like that has a big night and his team loses by double-digits, then so be it.” The Spurs will cheat ever so slightly, and if Kaman spins middle, they’ll certainly collapse, but by and large this has been their strategy against most post scorers for as long as we can remember, and it rarely fails.
Chris Kaman has a big night — he dominates the low block, scoring 23 points, grabbing 15 boards and turning the ball over only once in 32 minutes against single coverage — but none of the four other Clippers’ starters has a particularly effective evening. The Spurs’ program pays off once again, as they put the game out of reach midway through the third quarter. The collapse begins after Eric Gordon gets hacked by Tim Duncan on a fast break layup (3rd, 9:33), but doesn’t get the foul. The Clippers spiral into frustration, and Kaman is lucky not to pick up a flagrant foul on the return trip when he decks Tim Duncan underneath with a hard foul (3rd, 9:18).
Things start out so promising offensively for the Clips in the opening minutes. They get a bucket on their second possession when Kaman gets free for a step-out jumper on a very strong pindown by Baron Davis (1st, 11:08). Kaman devours DeJuan Blair in isolation (1st, 10:22). Then the Clippers creatively use Thornton and Gordon together on the same side of the floor (1st, 9:50). Thornton posts up Richard Jefferson, while Eric stands at his perch along the arc guarded by Keith Bogans. The instant Bogans shifts his balance low away from Gordon, Thornton zips the kickout to EJ for a 3PM. After that, Baron attacks Parker, and the Clippers look sound in the opening six minutes.
On the defensive end, the Clippers are a little overactive, a condition that surrenders too many open buckets from the perimeter. If you’re Eric Gordon, you can’t afford to drift into no man’s land away from the Spurs’ shooters on the weak side perimeter (1st, 2:57), an error that results in a Bogans 3PM that triggers San Antonio’s 12-0 run to end the quarter. And if you’re Baron Davis, you don’t need to be the third to collapse on Parker, especially if it means deserting Keith Bogans in the corner (2nd, 2:04), and you shouldn’t leave Tony Parker alone on the wing to join the defensive scrum on a driving Roger Mason (2nd, 0:31).
Many of those 12 unanswered points to close the first can be tagged to DeAndre Jordan. Everyone wants Jordan to succeed, but the margins of this Clippers team’s success are too thin to absorb Jordan’s trials during his brief, but costly, stint in the game. From the moment he checks in, Jordan implodes. He travels on a putback (1st, 2:38); gets beat downcourt by 71-year-old Theo Ratliff, surrendering a layup (1st, 1:52); botches an easy layup after a perfect interior pass from Baron Davis (1st, 1:33) then commits a frustration foul; gets stripped by Manu Ginobili on the way up for a layup (0:56); then travels while walking the baseline tighrope after grabbing an offensive rebound, giving the ball back to San Antonio (0:43). After the last mishap, he’s dispatched to the bench. It’s a heartbreaking sequence because Jordan wants so desperately to produce.
The Clippers miss 13 of their 15 final field goal attempts in the first period. They settle for a Marcus Camby slingshot, and Kaman misses a couple of 15-footers — one agaisnt Duncan on the right side (1st, 5:19) and the other a wide open look generated by the best Gordon/Kaman S/R you’ll ever see. Though they stay within reach into the third quarter, the Clippers surrender points to San Antonio on 10 of 11 possessions in the latter half of the quarter. Tony Parker starts to find his away around Baron Davis and the high screen en route to the cup, and when he’s not getting all the way to the rack, he’s finding others. Once George Hill checks in for Parker, the Spurs go to a Ginobili/Ratliff S/R to scramble the Clippers’ defense in the half-court and manufacture open looks for the likes of Richard Jefferson and Ratliff. Meanwhile, the Clippers foul the hell out of the Spurs, who drain 11 free throws in the third.
Strangely, the Clippers’ shot chart in the third isn’t ugly at all. They actually shoot 50 percent in the period (9-18 FGA). So what’s the problem? Not a single trip to the line along with 4 turnovers.
Houston represents a slightly better matchup for the Clips — provided Davis, Gordon, Thornton and Butler are ready to run wind sprints after makes and misses alike to chase the Rockets’ snipers off the line. If the Clippers — who have been a solid 3-point and transitional defensive unit overall this season — can keep those early attempts in check, they’ve got a puncher’s chance.