Isn’t it great to be watching a basketball game again instead of a barfight (i.e. Round 1)? Unfortunately, all that space, flow and tempo Clippers fans had missed came in a convincing loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
Let’s start with the opposition
Game 1 validated everything about the Spurs: they are disciplined, efficient and, forget about the lights, San Antonio can shoot the sun out. I’m going to take a quick second to dispel a misnomer about the Spurs:
The San Antonio Spurs are not old.
Just to repeat:
The San Antonio Spurs are not old.
Got it? Duncan is 36 years old and he lead the Spurs in minutes played (35) and points (26 on 12-20FGA). Ginobli is 34, but after that? Parker (29), Diaw (30), Green (24), Leonard (20), Splitter (27), Neal (27). Don’t kid yourself, the Spurs are not going to wear down as the series progresses.
And the Spurs ridiculous 52% (13-25) from deep? That probably isn’t going to change much either. San Antonio is the best team 3-point shooting team in the postseason at 40.7%. That’s 2% better than the next best shooting team (OKC at 38.6%) and more than 5% better than the Clippers (35%), who are a very good 3-point shooting team.
So that’s the series, right? The Spurs are a team of hyper efficient robots that run the same offensive program until it executes. They calculate the biggest threat of the opposing team (Chris Paul) and scheme to neutralize it.
Yes and no. Game 1 showed a lot of what the Spurs do right and a lot of what the Clippers do… let’s say less right (and by that I mean wrong). Focusing on the key errors by the Clippers:
The bright side? Despite the ineffective defense and poor rebounding, the Clippers won the possession battle (83-80). They also caused a lot of turnovers (15 for the Clippers to 18 for the Spurs) and were within 8 points (after a 10-0 run) with 8 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
On top of that, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul had unequivocally poor games. In fact, you could say every Clipper had a poor game with the exception of a scorching Eric Bledsoe, and then just solid games from Caron Butler, Nick Young and DeAndre Jordan (the latter two getting curiously few minutes prior to garbage time).
“If Chris Paul had a normal showing, Clippers could have won Game 1”
Maybe, but Tony Parker had a terrible game as well. As much as everyone thought this series would be a battle of elite point guards, the crummy performances essentially negated each other. It should be fully expected that Chris Paul will figure out the Green/Leonard conundrum that Popovich trotted out for Game 1. After all, Memphis is thought of as the premier perimeter defensive unit and Paul solved that puzzle. Just expect Parker to work out the kinks as well.
And yet, the Clippers had a Paul performance of sorts by Eric Bledsoe in Game 1 (or as DJ Foster said, “He looked a lot like Dwyane Wade.”) Slashing, probing, tip ins, spot up shots, behind the back passes, Bledsoe did it all. He even executed the patented Chris Paul flop where Paul slows down midcourt and stops to let an opposing big run him over, drawing an easy foul. Not only that, Bledsoe drew the most difficult perimeter defensive assignment whenever he was in, be it Parker or Ginobli (a large reason why Parker had such difficulty). Bledsoe’s presence allowed a hampered Chris Paul not to have to exert so much energy defensively and focus on breaking down the San Antonio defense. This is now the third straight game Bledsoe’s fingerprints have been all over the game and it’s clear Del Negro needs to adjust the rotation patterns to better utilize Bledsoe’s minutes.
On the topic of rotations, I wonder if Blake’s minutes should be limited. And this is not an idea with the hopes he recovers from injury, although Blake is clearly affected. More than anything he seemed tentative in Game 1. After the grit ‘n grind of the first round, it looked as if Blake didn’t know how to adjust back to a straightforward game of basketball (like he was institutionalized).
Griffin is not a strong help/rotation defender. But this is more than compensated with his offensive production, by either distributing out of double teams or generating his own points. But if he’s not being aggressive because of injury or otherwise? Then at best he’s simply swinging the ball from the perimeter without engaging the Spurs defense. Not a threat to shoot the outside shot. Not forcing the defense to collapse.
And this is partly why Foye is struggling so much. Throughout the year teams have been keying in on Paul and/or Griffin, leaving Foye to spot up and shoot. In Game 1, San Antonio focused on Paul and stayed at home with all the Clipper shooters. If Griffin is unwilling or unable to exploit the coverage, it might behoove them to limit his minutes until Griffin is more confident in his body/ability.
And that might be the biggest factor for the series: the Clippers need to either drag the Spurs into a dogfight (as Kenyon Martin suggested) or get into a high octane war. As ugly as their series with the Grizzlies were, it forced the Clippers into an identity of grinding and resiliency. The Clippers maintained their determination but need to quickly identify how to attack the series. Is it a knock down, drag out fight? A better choreographed ballet of jump shots and screen and rolls? Alternating between the two? The fact that there are realistic options for Clipper success should give hope that this could be a long series yet. We’ll see in Game 2 how the Clippers decide to adjust.