Conference semifinal preview: No. 1 Spurs vs. No. 5 Clippers
No team handled the shortened season better than the Spurs. After receiving an infusion of athleticism and outside shooting, coach Gregg Popovich played Scrooge with minutes, not allowing anyone to play more than 32.8 a game and letting the team's Big Three -- Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker -- skip selected games in order to keep rested. But unlike many veteran contenders, the Spurs didn't suffer a decline in playoff seeding for the gains of better health. In the process, Popovich developed a roster that doesn't have merely one Sixth Man Award candidate, but an entire lineup of them. That depth was on display in a first-round sweep of Utah, as San Antonio's bench often extended leads.
The Clippers didn't find many leads to extend in beating the Grizzlies in seven games, but they seemed to discover the grit they'll need to have any chance of tripping up the Spurs' well-oiled machine. Part of that comes from grinding out physical, often-ugly wins over a solid Memphis defense. But more of it comes from Chris Paul, Caron Butler and Kenyon Martin -- players whose games rise when things get a little testy. The Spurs don't invite the type of sharp elbows Zach Randolph did, which may present a challenge to the Clippers to generate the muck on which they seem to thrive. But if the Clippers can prevent San Antonio from jumping too far in front, their toughness may keep Duncan from his almost-customary seat on the bench in the fourth quarter.
But let's not forget that Paul is one of the few talents who can bend a game to his will. Even when dinged up, as he was in the latter stages of the Memphis series with a hip injury, Paul is capable of getting anywhere he wants on the floor -- either by quickness or force. As much as any player in the league, Paul is the Clippers' de facto coach, casting everyone into their optimal spots on the floor while getting in their ear. If there's one trouble spot for Paul, it's found in his (and the Clippers') tendency to cruise through the early stages of a game. That may make for spectacular 24-point fourth-quarter comebacks in the first round; it'll make for blowout losses in the second round.
The Spurs haven't lost since April 11. They've won the 14 games they've played in that span by an average of 18 points. They're the best-shooting team in the playoffs and have the stingiest field-goal defense.
Paul and Griffin (who is playing through a knee injury) are going to need a lot of help stopping a team as deep, savvy and rested as the Spurs. Of course, they did just take down a Grizzlies team that stunned San Antonio last year in the first round. But these Spurs are different, sleeker, based on an offense that can deliver from any spot on the floor -- quickly. The Clippers did well to win a playoff series for the first time since 2006, but San Antonio is on a roll and has too much firepower.