When the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers start their Conference Semi-Finals series tonight, the conditions of the two squads couldn’t be more different. In their first round series versus the Jazz, the Spurs used their veteran discipline, yet young depth to beat a young Utah team in four games. The quick series is a bonus for Pop’s team, giving them a solid eight days between game days, crucial for a Spurs team having to shake the “old” stigma for the last few years.
The Clippers state is that of polar opposites. The young Chris Paul led Clippers team, unlike their captain, is fresh to the playoff scene. The whole franchise is still getting used to playing this time of year. The young players for the Clippers made tremendous strides, as they learned on the fly during a grueling seven game series against the Grizzlies. While the physical, and often contentious, nature of the Grizzlies series forced the Clippers to mature quickly, it also dealt the Clippers a few hockey puck-sized pills to swallow in the form of injuries to three key players; Caron Butler’s broken left hand, Blake Griffin’s sprained left knee, and Chris Paul’s pulled right hip/groin.
The Clippers limp into only their second Conf. semi-finals series in franchise history with their two best players not even close to full-strength. Paul and Griffin both suffered their injuries in quarter games five and six respectively, both struggling to finish the games they got hurt in. When it came to games six and seven though, both of the stars played major minutes in order to secure the series. They both showed visible signs of limitation and pain, but in games six and seven Paul averaged: 35mpg, 15ppg, 5.5apg, 2.5spg, and 4tpg; while Griffin contributed: 30.5mpg, 12.5ppg, 4.5rebs, and 3apg on one leg. Both were still dangerous enough to keep the Clippers head above water, while their bench helped provided the energy that would ultimately become the signature for a Clipper 'playoff' win.
The strength of this Clipper team is their bench. Not a particularly deep one, the Clipper reserves have components that are tailor-made for the playoffs. Reggie Evans is playoff basketball. His reckless physicality embodies what the grind of postseason games are supposed to be; a war. Following his war-cry is fellow veteran big man Kenyon Martin, who joins Evans as perhaps the two most physical, and straight nasty big men on any team. Other than his own brand of tenacious physicality, Martin also brings an intangible that no other healthy Clipper (sorry, Chauncey) provides, which is ‘Finals’ experience. Martin was key in helping future HOF point-guard Jason Kidd to reach his first Finals, and in back to back years. This is the time of year it’s important to have guys like Martin, who also has nice offensive skill set too and can be a threat from mid-range.
The guards on the Clipper bench can be an enigmatic bunch with a combination of two young guns, and veteran Mo Williams. Point-guard Eric Bledsoe and off-guard Nick Young complete the trio, and they give the Clippers a noticeable boost of energy with the rest of the reserves. The result of that effort itself can vary. Bledsoe’s play, especially in the absence of Paul has been a revelation. The second year point guard can get to wherever he wants to on the court, which has greatly helped his team at points, but has also gotten him in trouble at times too. He is most effective in transition and when he attacks the basket. Young and Williams, along with Randy Foy, are the Clippers best shooters from deep. They both do a good job of spacing the floor during transition and both are not afraid to shoot the big shot. Williams also handles the ball and is a threat on the pick-and-roll with the second unit. Both are guards that can score 20 on a given night, giving their team some much needed firepower.
Williams’ decision making is a luxury to head coach Vinny Del Negro, who didn’t get much credit for his coaching in the last series. Del Negro pushed all the right buttons, especially personnel wise, to eek out the series short-handed.
As noted earlier, the Spurs first round series was slightly shorter than the Clippers first round. Like three games shorter. The top seeded Spurs were efficient in their dismantling of 8th seeded Utah, with none of the games being overly competitive or close enough to write home about. Just how Pop wants it. The sweep though did serve as a notice to those who were quick to dismiss the Spurs regular season, and instead pointed to last year’s playoff failures. This year’s team is a completely healthy version of last year’s squad, but better. A healthy Duncan/Parker/Ginobili is something of a rarity these days, but they are still ever so dangerous to opponents. The Spurs are obviously much more than that, and this year has been an exhibition of the full team.
Coach Popovich, well deserving of his ‘Coach of the Year’ honors, has everyone playing at the perfect level. His ability to instill confidence and poise in his younger players has been paramount to the Spurs success thus far. His system has no room for overthinking; you cut, space out, and shoot if you’re open. His trust in a young Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair, and Gary Neal has rewarded the Spurs immensely. His maximization of an old Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson, and Matt Bonner are also what make the Spurs a deeper and more dangerous version of last years. Forget that Parker is playing at near MVP levels, that Ginobili is still the crafty and explosive scorer he’s known to be, and that Duncan is the second best big man of our generation for a reason. The Spurs have a lot of horses to run with; perhaps their deepest team in some time. Their versatility is the Spurs strength, and it can present match-up problems with the Clippers with their mixes of lineups.
The Spurs past successes have hinged on superior defense, something this year’s team is not specifically built for. Coach Popovich has adapted his teams playing style to the personnel he has, using their versatility and speed to spread the floor and open the game more, enabling Parker to shine this season in pick-and-rolls more often. The result is them both scoring, and allowing a ton of points. While in the middle of the NBA pack in points allowed (96.5ppg), the Spurs ranked second in both points scored (103.7ppg), and point differential (7.2ppg). These Spurs are a drastically different team than last year’s squad, who made unwanted history losing as a one seed to an eighth seed for the second time ever. These Spurs fancy themselves title contenders.
The Clippers though, will test really quickly if the Spurs are truly title contenders. They have just enough tenacity and depth on their bench to more than a challenge the Spurs. The Spurs will try imposing its will on the game by the style in which they play. Their depth and versatility is how Pop manipulates opponents lineups, and it forces the Spurs’ opponents to fall into their type of game and tempo. A spread court means taking big men away from the basket, which the Clippers are actually somewhat confident in. The Clipper big’s for the most part are adequate in foot speed. Griffin is comfortable guarding the perimeter big men, but it’s Martin who has actually thrived recently on guarding perimeter opponents, no matter the size. A few years ago with the Nuggets he was comfortable guarding Kobe in the playoffs, and fast forward to this post-season and guess who’s shutting down Rudy Gay on key possessions? Good ole K-Mart. It’s his active feet, and Evans’ physicality that can prove key to the Clippers winning a few games in the series.
Enough wins to advance? I don’t think so. While the Clippers have discovered their playoff-winning formula, their injuries really make it even more of an uphill battle. Coach Del Negro has done amazing things, frankly job saving things, and has enabled his young stars and role players alike to grow exponentially in these games. He, along with Paul, have taught a franchise that’s never known how, to win. But with Paul and Griffin far from 100 percent healthy, I believe the Spurs will win the series in six games.
The physical presence of the Clippers and their defensive energy will be enough to challenge the Spurs, but I think a well-rested, deeper, and more experienced Spurs team will prevail. The Clippers are headed in the right direction, but their post-season ends in this series this year. Tony Parker continues to play inspired basketball, and the Spurs are one of the most unselfish teams in the League, averaging the fourth most assists per game in the NBA. The speed, shooting, and depth of the Spurs will prove too much for the Clippers in their injured state.
Spurs in Six