The last time the Clippers beat the Spurs in San Antonio, Michael Olowokandi was still on the team. The year was 2002. Yes, it’s been that long. The last time the Clippers beat the Spurs at all was in 2006. The streak spans seventeen games between the Clippers and the Spurs and is good enough to be the longest current team-versus-team winning streak in the NBA, according to the Elias Bureau. In fact the only current Clipper that was a part of that win in 2006, Chris Kaman, won’t play tonight.
On top of these glaring historical stats, the Clippers just came off an ugly loss to the New Orleans Hornets last night. In the games prior to the Hornets, the Clippers were starting to develop some rhythm offensively. They began to actually score, securing a win against Oklahoma before challenging the Nuggets and the Jazz (who had a mindboggling win against the Heat last night, down 8 with 37 seconds left, they came back and won in overtime, thanks to three threes and 46 points from Paul Millsap). Unfortunately, the Clippers lost that momentum last night in their behind-all-night loss to the Hornets.
What became very clear last night was how integral Eric Gordon is in the offense. Not that I took him lightly before, he’s the leading scorer, but he’s becoming more of a guy that makes everyone around him better. His ability to keep wing defenders from sagging in on Blake and Kaman is a huge boon. Because of Gordon’s absence and Kaman’s injury halfway into the first quarter, the defenders swarmed Blake, holding him to his worst night of the season.
All of this means that the Clippers are going to have to find a way, in the event that Gordon doesn’t play tonight, to keep the spacing. This burden will likely fall into the hands of the young rookie, Eric Bledsoe. While Rasual will fill in at the 2, he’s not a creator, and heavily relies on crisp passing in his favorite spots to get him his points (although he did have those two game saving threes in Utah). This means that Bledsoe is going to have to really take it on himself to penetrate the defense while simultaneously looking for his shot and others. A game like last night is good (6 points on 3 for 5 shooting, 6 rebounds and 8 assists), but he’s going to need to do better against the Spurs if the Clippers are going to win.
It’s disheartening to have to lean on a raw rookie like this, but he has been playing very well and people have been taking notice. Here’s a snippet from David Thorpe’s column on the rookie surprises for this season:
Bledsoe was simply dreadful in Vegas summer league for the most part. He showed incredible talent physically, but little ability to run a team or be a good decision-maker. However, after replacing an injured Baron Davis in the starting lineup, Bledsoe has looked more adept at finding ways to use his great athleticism. And his shooting has looked better, too.
He’s still more dangerous in transition than he is in the half court, but he’s starting to look more composed and patient in this area. Here’s the part I like best: In his first four starts, he had seven steals, four blocked shots and two offensive rebounds. That’s finding a way to help your team win.
Bledsoe’s precocious play has been a shining point of this season filled with lackluster play from veterans (Baron, Kaman, Gomes, Foye, Butler) and he’s going to have to play great tonight. The good thing is, as quick as Tony Parker is, he’s not an especially good defender. He’s not like Chris Paul who’s liable to steal the ball anytime the man he’s defending dribbles, Tony Parker is nowhere near as sly. There will be creases and lanes for Bledsoe to get to the rim.
This Spurs team may be getting older, but they are still a cohesive team. They still pass the ball well and get open shots because of their unity. This team is so successful because they handle players so well, they have a system to rely upon.
Last year the Spurs thought they were going to get a great season out of Richard Jefferson, only he went on to play his worst season since his rookie year. He only scored 12 points a game and was often a lighting rod for criticism. He wasn’t playing defense or knocking down corner threes and he definitely wasn’t picking up the offensive slack when Duncan, Parker or Ginobili were struggling. This year, it’s already different. The Spurs aren’t off to a sluggish start that they have seen in recent Novembers, their Championship Caliber Label isn’t being questioned as being completely over. All of this change has a large part due to the now high functioning Richard Jefferson.
He spent the last summer going back to a sort of skills camp with Greg Popovich. It must have taken a serious swallowing of pride (although that fat contract extension probably helped sugarcoat that pill) but RJ did it. Now the Spurs have another potent perimeter threat. At point they have Tony Parker, at shooting guard they have Manu and at the small forward they have the renewed Richard Jefferson.
This strong perimeter play was the main reason that the Clippers lost to the Spurs in the first game. Yeah, they still had Tim Duncan, but in the first game, Duncan was 2 for 6 shooting, with only four points in the first half. The majority of the damage the Spurs inflicted upon the Clippers was due to Jefferson, Parker, Ginobili and bench guard Gary Neal. Those four combined for 77 points on 25 for 47 shooting. That’s ridiculous. If the Clippers are going to improve, not only will Bledsoe have to take on a larger role in the offense, but the team collectively will have to play much better defense on the perimeter.
Much of perimeter defense is about funneling the players into areas that are difficult to score from, or where it’s easy for other defenders to help. To this point, most of the Clippers defense has relied on one-on-one defense. I like that they are holding themselves responsible, but for any defensive system to really work there needs to be a larger level of teamwork involved to be successful and they haven’t had the communication and practice necessary to back up each other.
The best defense the Clippers have played this season was in the first half against the Jazz when they played some zone defense. A gutsy play, because that weakens the defense to long perimeter shots/threes and to offensive rebounds. But what I saw was a team finally looking after each other. This isn’t because they weren’t trying before, but because the players knew where to be, knew where to funnel the offensive players.
Against the Spurs, they probably aren’t going to have the same luxury of playing a zone because of the offensive rebounding capabilities of DaJuan Blair and Tim Duncan mixed with the long range shooting of Richard Jefferson, Manu Ginobili and Matt Bonner. They’ll have to play a more honest, communicative man-on-man defense, but they’ll need to include the unity that’s foundational to zone defense and great defense in general.
Like you, I’m reading this realizing that the Clippers have long odds at beating the Spurs tonight in San Antonio (and this is all without addressing the continuing inability to play a decent third quarter), but there is also something bigger at work, something latent in the Eric Bledsoe key. The Clippers are the most rookie reliant team in the NBA. They have 3 rooks (Blake, Bledsoe, Aminu) playing large minutes. According to the Elias Bureau, the rookies are combining to play 74.5 minutes, score 30.6 points and haul in 16.4 rebounds. All highs in the NBA. No other team has rookies combining to play 50 minutes, score 25 points and pull down 10 rebounds. No doubt a strong statement. The detractors will say that’s because the Clippers don’t have the players to put in front of the rookies, which is true to some extent. But this Clippers team knew that it was going to be especially young, they knew they were going to be in rebuilding and in doing so they were going to have to rely on the rookies to play significant minutes so that the future of the franchise will finally start to turn around. Not that it’s an absolute ranking, but David Thorpe has the Rookies ranked as the 1st, 8th and 19th best rookies in their class. Aminu lingers in at 19th, but that’s in large part due to opportunity. He’s been stuck behind Gomes and Butler, but with play like last night, his floor time could greatly increase. This is a team on the rise, as the Clippers commercials suggest, but they are rising from a low place.
So be patient, enjoy the theatrics of their talent and athleticism but until they develop some cohesion as a team, don’t expect a lot in the win column. The Spurs win streak will likely stretch to 18 games but the Clippers will improve. They’ll get better over the course of this year, but at this moment, this team is not ready yet.
(Addendum: I was invited on a podcast with the writers of 48 Minutes of Hell to talk about the Clippers/Spurs matchup. Should you care to listen in, here’s the link.)