LOS ANGELES—While ferocity has been a given for the Clippers, serenity has proven awfully elusive.
Years worth of above-the-rim thrills have yet to produce meaningful postseason success since Chris Paul arrived in L.A., in large part because a team that's unmatched in highlight-reel creation has struggled with the finer points at critical playoff moments. The Clippers were dissected by the Spurs in 2012, bullied by the Grizzlies in 2013 and out-poised by the Thunder last season, and their 2014-15 season seemed destined for similar deterioration due to an evaporating bench. Coach (and general manager) Doc Rivers took four straight questions about his shallow reserve unit prior to Game 1 against the Spurs on Sunday, knowing full well that the first-round series would be pitched as his top-heavy squad against the defending champions' seemingly endless depth.
In a twist, it was the notoriously incomplete team that put together a more complete performance, as the Clippers handily defeated the Spurs 107-92 in front of a surprisingly strong Staples Center crowd. While Blake Griffin delivered more than his fair share of ferocity, punishing poor Aron Baynes with back-to-back-to-back dunks in the third quarter, L.A. prevailed due to its steady insistence on maintaining total control over the game flow.
To Rivers, maintaining "great resolve" is the key to dethroning a tested Spurs group that is led by perhaps the two most unflappable stars in the league, Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard. "[The Spurs] are going to go on stretches where the ball is moving and they have you spinning around," he said afterward. "You just have to take the ball out and run it back and see if you can score."
At every turn the Clippers lived that mantra. Griffin shook off some early no-calls and struggles around the basket to post 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. Paul was a masterful presence throughout, filling the stat sheet with 32 points, seven rebounds and six assists and staving off San Antonio's desperate late pushes with key scores. DeAndre Jordan dominated the interior like the Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rivers swears he is, grabbing 14 rebounds and blocking four shots, while altering and dissuading countless others. "Their defense was better than our offense," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
Those three star performances—Griffin's stanchion-shaking slams, Paul's fierce flick dribbles and Jordan's slapstick swats—were supplemented by calm during crucial moments.
One key stretch came late in the second quarter, when Paul was sent to the bench with his third foul. The Spurs had pushed through the Clippers' first-quarter burst of momentum to reel off a 10-0 run to start the second period, and Paul's departure left L.A. particularly vulnerable. To further complicate matters, Popovich elected to intentionally foul Jordan, a 39.7% free-throw shooter, time after time.
Not two hours before, Rivers told reporters he would try to avoid "chess matches" with Popovich at all costs because he wasn't "on that level." And yet the Clippers more than traded pawns during this first test, with Jordan sinking four of eight free throws (he was 5-for-12 on the night) to fend off the Hack-a-Jordan strategy. Meanwhile, the Clippers managed multiple stops on the other end, pushing what had been a two-point lead when Paul left to six points by halftime.
L.A. thereby avoided the emotional gut punch that would have resulted from blowing a double-digit lead and the self-doubt that might have crept in had things immediately fallen apart without Paul. "That could have gone bad for us and we actually extended the lead," Rivers said. "The whole bench may not play a ton of minutes, but they're going to have to have their little parts in this series."
The turning point of the second half came just past the midway point, when Matt Barnes and Baynes wrestled for possession near the baseline. The intense struggle carried both men toward the courtside photographers, eventually spilling Baynes head-over-heels as referees and players from both teams came rushing over in what appeared to be a potential scuffle. There was Barnes, one of the few people to draw as many fines from the league office recently as rogue Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, smartly departing the scene with his hands raised before he might find himself on the wrong side of referee Ed Malloy's wrath. No harm, no foul, the officials decided, jumping the ball up and letting play resume.
The Staples Center crowd immediately came alive, egged on by Barnes' hustle and, perhaps, relieved that an excellent team effort wouldn't be spoiled by a single heated moment. Griffin then took it to the next level. He levied two vicious dunks directly on Baynes within the next three minutes, sending the arena into pandemonium and prompting fans to deface Baynes's Wikipedia page. "He brought [dunking] back in the playoffs for us," Spurs guard Danny Green said, making reference to Griffin's alleged preference for shooting jumpers over dunking the ball this season. "Great. Lucky us."
Still, there were no premature celebrations. Paul made sure of that, putting the game on ice with 13 fourth-quarter points, and losing his defenders with all manners of spins and tricks along the way. "If we learned anything over the years in the playoffs, it would be that you have to finish it out," Griffin said.
The Griffin/Jordan combination boasts unbelievable athleticism. While Spurs guard Manu Ginobili remarked that Jordan "might be the most athletic center in the history of the game," the Spurs are too balanced and deep to lose to a one-trick pony, regardless of how gravity-defining that opponent might be. Game 1, then, goes down as a blueprint win for the Clippers because it was so thorough and so secure: they maintained a high energy level, they stitched together enough contributions from their auxiliary pieces, they dodged some bullets (the Spurs rightfully lamented their 10-for-33 three-point shooting), Griffin and Jordan won the paint and Paul took care of the rest.
[daily_cut.NBA]Baynes guaranteed he will be a punch line to some with his performance Sunday, going back for more from Griffin only to receive more than he could handle again and again. Champions have too much pride to feel shame in that situation, and there's little doubt Baynes will rise to contest Griffin a dozen more times this series, regardless of how many YouTube views he generates. Isn't that precisely the "great resolve" that Rivers was talking about?
Indeed, San Antonio's will won't be broken by a series of sledgehammer dunks. If the Clippers are going to send the Spurs packing, it will be because they are able to remain even and in control long enough that their physical advantages become insurmountable. The Clippers bring a storm wherever they go, everyone knows that. Whether they advance will depend on how they prepare for it and how they handle the aftermath.