2012 NBA Playoffs: The Deep Spurs Meet The Hungry Clippers
How The Teams Got Here
The Spurs are fresh off a sweep of the Utah Jazz, in which the Spurs dominated all aspects of the game. During the regular season, the team was just as dominant, boasting the best record (tied with Chicago) in the league en route to a No. 1 seed out West. 2012 NBA Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich was so confident with his team’s depth (and concerned about preserving his aging star) that he rested Tim Duncan for entire games, especially when the Spurs played the second night of a back-to-back.
Pop even got his star point guard, Tony Parker, some rest for whole games. Even though the Spurs were already so impressive, the front office never stopped trying to improve the team. In mid-March, the Spurs dealt away Richard Jefferson and a first-round pick in order to acquire Stephen Jackson, who had won a championship with the Spurs in 2003. As April approached, the Spurs also added free agent point guard Patty Mills.
The Clippers jumped out to a 19-9 start through the first month and a half of the season. Their hot start featured victories over the Heat, Thunder, Lakers, Grizzlies and Magic, among others. Suddenly, in the closing minutes of a win over Orlando, 15-year veteran Chauncey Billups fell to the floor, clutching his left leg. An MRI would confirm the Achilles tear and ensure Billups would be out for the entire season. Without its experienced two-guard, the Clippers would initially struggle, winning just 11 of their next 25 games.
The season was going downhill and fast, so general manager Neil Olshey pulled the trigger on a trade to receive shooting guard Nick Young. All the Clippers gave up was Brian Cook and a second-round draft pick. With Young in uniform, LA went on to win 15 of its last 23 regular season games. Even with a hot April, in which the team went 9-5, including two victories over the Thunder, the Grizzlies overtook the Clippers in the standings, effectively stealing home-court advantage. The Grizzlies truly earned the home cooking, as they won 14 of their final 17 games heading into the postseason.
Despite Memphis’ home-court advantage, the Clippers stole two crucial games in Memphis (Games 1 and 7) and were able to advance past the Grizzlies in seven hard-fought games. March-acquisition Young made five of seven three-pointers in those two games. The Clippers bench collectively came up huge in the decisive Game 7, scoring exactly half of the team’s points. Bench players Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin, Eric Bledsoe and Young were especially impressive in the final quarter.
Regular Season Series: Spurs Won, 2-1
The season series was extremely close between these teams. Although San Antonio took two of three from LA, the Clippers and Spurs would both agree that the Clippers had the Feb. 28 contest all but sealed until Chris Paul uncharacteristically did this. If the Clippers had won that game, the season series would have been flipped (2-1 in favor the Clips). Regardless, it’s hard to draw many conclusions from the season series, because each team has changed considerably. For instance, in the Spurs’ Dec. 28 victory, both Bledsoe and Evans were injured for the Clippers, while Billups was healthy and Ryan Gomes, Trey Thompkins and Cook were still in the rotation. Cook was traded away in March, and Gomes and Thompkins now applaud their teammates exclusively from the bench.
In addition, none of the three games featured Jackson, who joined the team after the games had been played. It’s also important to note that Parker missed the teams’ final meeting, a game in which the Clippers won, 120-108. That was the game where Paul went off for 36 points and 11 assists. In the other two games with Parker in the lineup, Paul was held in check, shooting a combined nine of 29 to go along with just 15 assists.
Spurs Hope To Avenge Last Year’s Early Exit
Last postseason, the No. 1-seeded Spurs were shockingly upset by the No. 8 Grizzlies. For the Spurs, it was a tough pill to swallow, especially after securing the league’s second-best record that season. For that reason, the Spurs were likely hoping to meet the Grizzlies yet again for some old-fashioned payback. With the Clippers upsetting the Grizzlies, the Spurs must now refocus their efforts. However, that should not be a problem for a playoff-experienced team like the Spurs. San Antonio has earned 15 consecutive trips to the postseason, where it has won three titles over the last nine years. The Spurs still appear hungry, especially considering that the team has not won a title since 2007.
Spurs Haven’t Lost In What Seems Like Forever
The Spurs have won 15 straight games, including their four-game sweep over the Jazz. In fact, San Antonio’s last loss dates back to April 11 when they fell to a Kobe Bryant-less Lakers squad. If we go back to Mar. 12, the Spurs have won 29 of their last 32 games. If that does not strike fear into the hearts of the Clippers, I honestly don’t know what would.
Are The Spurs Deeper Than The Ocean?
The incredible depth the Spurs possess has been central to their success. 10 different Spurs average more than 20 minutes per game (Tiago Splitter nearly makes that 11, as he averages 19 minutes per game). Parker, the team leader in minutes, has only needed to play 32 minutes per contest. The team is replete with role players, who collectively do everything from nailing threes to rebounding aggressively to playing hard-nosed defense.
Key Matchup: Tony Parker Versus Chris Paul
This head-to-head matchup is easily the best reason to watch this series. Following tremendous seasons from both of these quick guards, each guy looks motivated to guiding his team to the Western Conference finals and beyond. Paul finished third in MVP-voting after leading his new team to a 40-26 record following a miserable, 32-50 campaign for the Clippers.
To his credit, Parker is playing inspired ball, as well. The talented point guard turns 30 on May 17, but his play has indicated no such signs of aging. In Parker’s illustrious, 11-year career, he has never distributed the ball as well as he did this season. Parker led the team in scoring this season and managed to increase his assist rate from 6.6 (last season’s average) to 7.7 per game, while holding his turnover rate constant.
Paul remembers these Spurs quite well. In fact, in 2008, as a member of the New Orleans Hornets, Paul played a great individual series, only to fall to the Spurs in seven despite the Hornets’ home-court advantage. Paul’s Hornets led the series 3-2, but lost the final two games, including a Game 7 at home. In a losing effort, Paul recorded 18 points, 14 assists, eight rebounds and five steals in 47+ minutes of action. It’s safe to assume Mr. Paul will be out for revenge this series.
Significant Questions Remains
1.) How will the Spurs defense adjust to the Clippers’ pick and roll offense? Sebastian Pruiti has astutely noted the Spurs’ defensive struggles against the pick and roll, one of the Clippers’ favorite plays to run with Paul and Griffin. Popovich is the Coach of the Year for a reason. How will he adjust?
2.) To what extent will Griffin and Jordan improve this series, especially on the glass? Against the Grizzlies, neither player rebounded effectively. The two bigs, who happen to be best friends, combined to average just 10.2 rebounds per game despite their combined season average of 19.2. If the Clippers allow even close to 13.4 offensive rebounds per game, like they did against the Grizzlies, they’ll have no chance against the Spurs. Jordan played virtually no big minutes in the first round, and rightly so. Evans and Martin were far superior rebounders in the series. For Jordan (and Griffin to some extent), playing with confidence will be key. Jordan simply needs to focus on boxing out. If he can do that, defensive rebounds should start coming his way more frequently. For Griffin, he should be able to improve offensively as well, as the young power forward achieved much offensive success against Duncan this season.
3.) Which Manu Ginobili will come to play? Ginobili has been hampered with injuries all season, but when healthy, he’s still been inconsistent at times. Ginobili played exceedingly well in two of the three head-to-head meetings with the Clippers. However, the lefty guard struggled in three of four first-round games. While his Game 4 against the Jazz showed improvement, questions around Ginobili still remain.
4.) Will the weeklong rest benefit San Antonio? The Spurs haven’t played since May 7, whereas the Clippers’ last affair was just two days prior to Game 1 (Sunday afternoon). The Clippers are younger than the Spurs, but even young teams can fall victim to fatigue.
Prediction: Spurs in Six
While a Clippers series victory seems highly improbable, many basketball aficionados are misreading this series as a slam dunk for the Spurs. I expect most of the games to be closely contested. Although Paul injured his right hip flexor in Game 5 of the previous series, he looks to have returned to his usual self...a feisty, fourth-quarter closer. As long as Paul is on the Clippers, it’s difficult to count them out. However, the Spurs’ incredible depth gives Popovich numerous options and looks. The Spurs’ tremendous playoff experience also cannot be discounted. For many Clippers, including Griffin, Jordan, Bledsoe, Young and others, this is the first time they are competing in the playoffs.
Game 1: Los Angeles at San Antonio (May 15, 6:30 p.m. on TNT)
Game 2: Los Angeles at San Antonio (May 17, 6:30 p.m. on ESPN)
Game 3: San Antonio at Los Angeles (May 19, 12:30 p.m. on ABC)
Game 4: San Antonio at Los Angeles (May 20, 7:30 p.m. on TNT)
Game 5: Los Angeles at San Antonio (May 22, TBD on TNT)*
Game 6: San Antonio at Los Angeles (May 25, TBD on ESPN)*
Game 7: Los Angeles at San Antonio (May 27, TBD on TNT)*