After San Antonio took what seemed like a commanding 10-point lead over the Clippers heading into the second quarter, you could feel a wave of collective doubt creeping over the game.
It felt like we were watching the 2012 playoffs all over again. The Clippers were reverting to old habits and crumbling on the Spurs’ floor. San Antonio was threading the needle, while the Clippers were coming undone. Even Manu Ginobili had returned to form. It looked like the game was about to get ugly fast.
But boy could that notion have been more wrong.
As has been the trend all season, the Clippers’ bench came to the rescue, mustering up a 23-5 run en route to a lead the Spurs would never regain.
It’s one thing to have the type of success the Clippers’ have had on their home floor; it’s another thing to do it on the road, in San Antonio, in a revenge game. That’s what championship-caliber teams do.
This was the best way the Clippers could have started their road trip. They won arguably their hardest game, against the team that swept them in the playoffs, on the court they can never seem to win on. Now, the tone is set for the rest of the trip: We can beat anyone, home or away, it doesn’t matter.
Their comeback started with their defense, which they can thank their second unit for.
The first quarter went about as wrong as it could have: Caron Butler sprained his shoulder and had to leave the game; Blake Griffin struggled to connect on his jumper; Jamal Crawford couldn’t dribble, let alone get a decent shot off; Chris Paul didn’t have the usual pep in his step; and the Clippers shot a putrid 34.8 percent.
Then the supersubs found their groove.
Matt Barnes put his hard hat on and went to work, finishing the first half with 12 points (10 of which came in the second quarter), 5 rebounds and 3 steals. He had a sequence of three offensive rebound put backs in a row, a testament to his relentless effort, knack for loose balls and offensive positioning.
Thus, the Clippers quieted the storm, held each Spurs player to under four points in the quarter and led 47-42 at halftime.
In the third quarter, Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan took turns using the Spurs’ defense as a punching bag, but a Tim Duncan-led attack kept it relatively close; the Clippers led by eight, 71-63, heading into the fourth.
That’s when the script flipped again.
The Clippers’ bench, not their starters, led them to victory over a combination of Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Gary Neal, Danny Green and Matt Bonner. Griffin and Paul scored four points combined, while Bledsoe, Crawford, Barnes and Ronny Turiaf combined for 17 points.
Besides a random yet effective Bonner outburst in the fourth, which lasted about three minutes and brought the game within two points, the Clippers kept the Spurs at an arm’s distance.
Barnes finished with 14 points and 9 rebounds. Paul had his usual 19-point, 8-assist outing, and capped off his performance with a clutch jumper over Tony Parker to seal the game’s fate. And Griffin, regaining his efficiency from last season, had 16 points and 12 rebounds, proving once again that no Spur — not even Duncan, who had a wonderful 20-point, 14-rebound and 2-block game of his own — can guard him one-on-one.
It was a bit odd to see Turiaf log crunchtime minutes over Jordan, who had an impressive performance (13 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks) and whose only fourth quarter playing time was a brief 25-second stint late in the game. The Clippers closed with Griffin, Barnes, Crawford, Bledsoe and Paul, a line-up to watch going forward – they may use it against teams that play small ball, such as the Heat, Knicks or Thunder, with Barnes guarding LeBron, Melo or Durant.
On a side note, the trio of Bledsoe, Crawford and Barnes is on to something early on in the season; give them any big man combination – including Ryan Hollins, Ronny Turiaf and/or Lamar Odom – and they’re going to make things happen with their defensive prowess and apt floor spacing.
Their +/- rating as a 3-man unit is +9.1. That’s in line with the Clippers’ +8.9 differential as a team, and ranks fifth out of all the Clippers’ 3-man lineups (minimum 100 minutes). Just for curiosity’s sake, the four lineups ranked ahead of them either have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in them (no-brainers), or some combo of the aforementioned Bledsoe/Crawford/Barnes grouping.
Basically, that triage is really good when they’re on the floor together. With Butler’s short-term status in limbo, as we don’t know how severe the injury is, it’s a luxury to be able to plug any of three players into the starting line-up and not skip a beat (if anything all have played much better than Butler so far). No one was sure what to expect of the bench heading into the season, and in a way, that’s exactly how people felt about the Clippers.
But both showed up against the Spurs and both are for real. This game didn’t confirm that – it was already true. All this win did was further perpetuate that reality. As reluctant as everyone outside of Clipper Nation is to accept that fact, they have to.
You don’t play a road game in San Antonio, trail by 10 points in the second quarter and comeback to win in an imposing fashion. It just doesn’t happen. But these Clippers pulled it off, and for that they have to be commended.
Even when they beat the Spurs last year, it was clear San Antonio was the better team. The same can’t be said now. Two regular season wins can’t make up for the thrashing the Clippers took in the 2012 playoffs, but they’re on the right track to redemption.
It’s only been 10 games, but the Clippers have proven a lot to themselves and their doubters. They can hang with any team in the league. There’s no “bad match-up” for them this year. They can properly adjust to whatever you throw their way, whether it’s small ball, interior size or anything in-between.
They have an answer for it all. No one else can boast victories over the Spurs (twice), Heat, Lakers, Bulls and Grizzlies. They have a legitimate claim at being the best team in the Western Conference.
You couldn’t say that before.
Stats in this post were used from NBA.com.