Over much of the past month, the Clippers have been a decisive defensive team. They’ve slowed opponents with initial traps and quick recoveries. When ballhandlers find freedom or connect with their bigs, the Clippers’ weak side rotation has been prompt. Marcus Camby anchors that enterprise, but even Al Thornton has become a better decision-maker many nights. When the Clippers guards get beaten off the dribble, they quickly find their next assignment in the defensive rotation — whether it’s running spot shooters off the line, or dropping low to strip the ball from a unsuspecting post player. Most nights, it’s this brand of defense that’s kept the Clippers competitive.
Not so on Sunday against San Antonio.
The Spurs shred the Clippers early, scoring 39 points on 23 first-quarter possessions. This is vintage Spurs basketball, predicated on Tony Parker’s incursions into the paint and Tim Duncan’s presence in the post. We see it on the Spurs’ first score (1st, 10:58), when Parker skirts the baseline while Duncan dives low. The lethal Parker-Duncan combo draws the entire Clippers’ unit in, leaving Keith Bogans alone in the corner. The Spurs have accumulated a lot of jewelry running this stuff, and here Bogans drains the Corner 3 that might as well have “Made in Bexar County” inscribed on its base.
The patented Spurs Corner 3 off the drive-and-kick is a lethal novelty, but the Parker-Duncan screen-roll is an enduring monument. The Clippers choose to trap Parker, with Marcus Camby acutely aware to focus on nothing but the rolling Duncan. What makes Duncan the most fluent low post practitioner of our lifetime is how he eludes even the best help defenders with his agility and touch:
Duncan works pretty well with Ginobili, too (I think Duncan could probably work with any passable point guard). Here, when fronted by Kaman, Duncan with Ginobili’s assist, goes back door. Thornton, being mindful of Jefferson, doesn’t have time to react:
The Spurs, as the Rockets did about ten days ago, beat the Clippers from beyond the arc, draining five of eight in the first quarter. Ginobili gets free of Gordon by pretending to set a flex screen underneath, then darts out to the arc leaving Gordon to trudge through the morass of big bodies beneath the basket (1st, 3:57). Ginobili sinks another one when he gets free to the same spot because Ricky Davis, for whatever reason, decides it’s more important leaving Manu to chase Bonner away from the action, even though Novak is already on Bonner. (1st, 0:16)
Doubling Matt Bonner off the ball is not a winning strategy for an NBA defense:
Bonner converts the fifth 3PM on the Spurs’ final possession of the quarter when Thornton drifts aimlessly toward Parker on the other side of the floor even though there are three Clippers in closer proximity to him. Ginobili hits a couple of more from behind the line in the opening minutes of the second quarter. He’s always on the move. Steve Novak’s unintuitive defensive instincts betray him on the first, yielding Ginobili a clean look from up top (2nd, 10:13). Then Ginobili runs Butler around a stagger screen with Blair and Bonner at the elbows (2nd, 8:23).
The Clippers trail by 23 at this juncture. They cut it to seven early in the third quarter, but a few tough possessions — one the product of Camby’s tendency to stay close to the basket even against stretch big men (Bonner’s 3PM at 3rd, 2:12), one that’s no fault of their own (Ginobili’s tough, well-contested, right-leaning jumper against Gordon at 3rd, 1:30), and one on a crafty interior pass by Keith Bogans in traffic to DeJuan Blair at the buzzer (3rd, 0:00) — extends the Spurs’ lead to 13 and essentially breaks the Clips.
The Clippers don’t help themselves much with their shot selection in the first 20 minutes of the game. We get a glimpse of the worst habits of Baron Davis and Thornton, each taking a few low-percentage jumpers, usually off-balance, contested, too early in the shot clock or all of the above. After that, they play sound offensive basketball for about 18 minutes. Thornton becomes more selective, doing most of his work on the attack and attempting 17-footers only when uncontested. Davis is also assertive, both in the post against the Spurs’ point guards and off the dribble. But the Clippers become selfish during a 16-0 San Antonio run that buries them, illustrated by Baron’s fallaway in transition against Richard Jefferson (4th, 9:03).
What’s frustrating about the Clippers inconsistency is its inconsistency. Tonight is a somewhat uncharacteristic loss, not unlike the Houston loss. The Clips are done in by bad perimeter and help defense. Eric Gordon is atypically impatient, while the team as a whole performs well on the glass and protects the basketball through three quarters.
It would be far more instructive if the Clippers could produce some recurring basketball patterns to their losses and stick with them.