In some ways, the Clippers season begins tonight. After the Chris Paul trade and the elevated expectations that came with it, you could have argued — and I did — that anything less than a trip to the second round would be a disappointment. And so, here they are, ready to begin.
The Spurs await, representing the heavy favorite, the juggernaut that many predict to take this series in four games, if not three. Seems funny to me that, given what happened during their three regular season meetings — a Clipper loss in the second game of the season, a Clipper win, and a game you may remember, in which an inbounds play went terribly awry – a team led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin could be so overlooked. Especially considering what happened just a season ago, when the Spurs were handed a ticket to the second round before those pesky Grizzlies — the ones the Clippers just dispatched — reminded us that that’s why the play the games.
We can only hope this series approaches the excitement of Round 1, because there are a ton of interesting storylines. Here are a few, but also be sure to check out the excellent work over at the Spurs’ TrueHoop site, 48 Minutes of Hell, including previews by Aaron McGuire and Andrew McNeill and an appearance by our own D.J. Foster on their podcast.
An exercise in contrast
One popular sentiment is that the Clippers struggled to score in a 7-game first round series, so how could they possibly be successful in an inherently more difficult second-round series against an obviously superior Spurs team? This, of course, is filled with faulty logic. The Spurs are, at least on paper, a better team than both the Clippers’ first round opponent and the Clippers themselves. But each series takes on its own personality, and it would be a mistake to project the style we saw play out in Round 1 to this matchup. Whereas the Spurs are an offensive machine, the Grizzlies were/are famous for making even the most efficient units look like my middle school team against the kid who went on to play at Memphis. There is a reason Chris Paul committed a turnover more per game in that series than he did all year.
The Spurs don’t have the perimeter defenders that Memphis does — few do. They also don’t have the type of athletic bigs capable of blowing up pick-and-rolls, meaning that if his hip flexor cooperates, Paul should find space to pull up for jumpers or get into the lane, as long as Griffin and DeAndre Jordan can set him some decent screens. One would think the Clippers could exploit this advantage in running their favorite high screen-and-roll sets, but at the very least, this dynamic should give this series a different look than we saw in Round 1.
These were two of the most efficient offensive teams during the regular season, but they do what they do in different ways. The Spurs rely on a system that maximizes the strengths of individuals that know their roles. The Clippers rely on a system that is best described as “Chris Paul.” To stop the Spurs, the Clippers will have to play sound defense for entire possessions, complete with rotations and discipline, to avoid being carved up on pick and rolls and kick outs to deadly shooters. You can bet that San Antonio will focus its collective effort on containing Paul and take its chances on other guys beating them.
If they are successful getting the ball out of Paul’s hands, the Spurs will then look to run “shooters” off the 3-point line. I put “shooters” in quotes because, while guys like Randy Foye, Mo Williams, Nick Young and Caron Butler can shoot, they also fashion themselves as scorers and slashers. Will the Clippers resist the urge to pump fake and dribble into long 2′s? They were in the top third of the league in shots attempted from 16-23 feet, and Greg Popovich surely knows this. You want to see how the coaching battle turns out? Take a look at how many corner 3′s the Spurs get and how many long 2′s the Clippers settle for.
What did we learn? And does it matter?
As Randy Foye said, the MVP of the Grizzlies series was the Clippers bench. The “Goon Squad,” consisting of Eric Bledsoe, Mo Williams, Nick Young, Raggie Evans and Kenyon Martin, provided an element of toughness and energy that the Clippers desperately needed against the Grit ‘n Grind Grizzlies. In some ways, injuries to Paul and Griffin worked in the Clippers favor, because they forced Vinny Del Negro to go with Bledsoe and Martin during extended stretches.
But what does that mean for this series?
Perhaps the most misunderstood aspects of the Spurs is just how good their defense became over the course of the season. They are more athletic than they have been in the past, and those who aren’t make up for it with smarts and positioning — you know, the way a good defense works. Paul may be able to find holes at the elbows, but Bledsoe, if given the opportunities, will likely see collapsing defenders challenging him to shoot or make decisions on the fly.
But we are probably getting ahead of ourselves projecting how Bledsoe, or anyone else in the second unit will play. That’s because, with no discernible substitution patterns, we have no idea how Del Negro will choose to utilize them. What value did he find in Evans and Martin, and how does he believe that will translate into certain situations against a completely different opponent? When Blake Griffin is as healthy as he’s going to be and DeAndre Jordan is hanging in there, like he did against Marc Gasol for stretches, where do the minutes go? And in the backcourt, we still have little indication about where guys stand on the totem pole and what that means for different situations.
The battle down low
By the end, the Memphis series had evolved (devolved?) into countless, successive cases of big on big crime. No one was spared, and at the end of the day, the Clippers were able to parlay their involvement into team rebounds and scrap buckets. Their opponents this series will present a different look down low, and while it may not be as physical, it figures to be just as dangerous. Tim Duncan is a nightmare for guys who have trouble staying down on pump fakes, and the Clippers happen to have two such players in their starting lineup.
On the other end, the Spurs will look to force Griffin into uncomfortable situations, although as we’ve seen recently, those situations have become fewer and farther between. Remember when the book was to make him shoot jump shots? Well, over the last two months of the season, he shot 37 and 49 percent on jumpers from 16-23 feet. He also showed against the Grizzlies that he can take punishment and keep attacking, so it will be interesting to see how San Antonio plays him. Ultimately, it may just come down to the health of his sprained knee.
After waiting this long, I’m sure we are all just ready for the season to begin.