Thursday April 23rd, 2015

LOS ANGELES—This was a cruel game of pinball played on a rigged machine, a footrace with banana peels suddenly appearing in one lane, Christmas anticipation spoiled by a burned turkey and bad company. A win squandered; an opportunity lost. 

The Spurs survived the Clippers 111-107 in Game 2 on Wednesday, evening the first-round series at one game, by the absolute skin of their teeth in overtime.

Did both teams deserve to win this game, or did neither?

San Antonio got next-to-nothing from Tony Parker, blew a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, distracted itself by intentionally fouling DeAndre Jordan and had no regular answer for Blake Griffin, who finished with a triple double (29 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists). The Spurs also got a vintage performance from Tim Duncan (28 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists), superstar play from Kawhi Leonard and invaluable contributions from Patty Mills as Parker's fill-in.

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L.A. followed a complete, impressive Game 1 with too many sloppy passes, too many mental breakdowns, and too many missed threes to keep up for most of the night. The Clippers also got that triple double from Griffin, another commanding all-around night from Paul (21 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists), and they showed enough determination not to fold when the Spurs looked poised to put the game on ice in the fourth. 

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The defining sequence within this “I’ve got it, no you take it” madness came with just over three minutes remaining in regulation. Jordan was on the free-throw line, yet again, when he missed his second attempt (A blown opportunity to cut San Antonio’s lead to one). But wait! Matt Barnes secured the ball, and was fouled. A second chance. Barnes missed both free throws (A second blow opportunity). But wait! Barnes again secured the ball. A third chance. This time, he missed a contested shot in the paint (A third blown opportunity). But wait! Barnes got the ball back again. A fourth chance. This time, Barnes was stymied by Duncan, and the Spurs finally cleared the possession highlighted by four blown Clippers' opportunities in 15 seconds.

The pinball machine was on tilt.

That was only the beginning of the Clippers’ heartbreak. Holding a two-point lead in the game’s final seconds, Griffin, he of the supernatural body control, inexplicably slipped to the court, turning the ball over as he lost his balance. Mills scampered the other way, eventually hitting a pair of clutch free throws that sent the game to overtime.

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How was this smooth, powerful high-flier felled by gravity at the worst possible moment, as if stuck for one play in a game of Mario Kart?

“That game is pretty much 100 percent on me,” Griffin said afterward. “I got the ball up two, needed to take care of it, needed to get a shot or try to get fouled, and I turned it over. That game is on me.”

L.A.’s suffering continued when Paul missed his signature midrange jumper on the last possession of the game, forcing overtime. It continued when Barnes missed a three-pointer (he was 1-for-10 on the night) with less than two minutes remaining in overtime and then momentarily forgot what he was supposed to be doing. There went Mills scampering again, this time completing an uncontested leak-out layup that gave San Antonio a two-possession advantage.

It continued with one final gasp, when J.J. Redick barely missed a potential game-tying three-pointer with less than 15 seconds left, a look that undoubtedly sent shivers of fear down the backs of the Spurs’ coaching staff. “I don’t know if we played our best game,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers lamented afterwards. “That was pretty obvious, but we still had a chance. You could say we should have won the game, but we didn’t.”

Chris Carlson/AP

The table had been set and reset for the Clippers: The win was there. A chance to go up 2-0 against the defending champs and reaffirm the authority they displayed in Game 1 was right there, but then it was gone.

Before Game 2, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich went to an oft-used quip: “Tim Duncan pays my bills, and he has for years.” With Parker sidelined due to a minor Achilles injury and Manu Ginobili fouled out, Duncan emerged as San Antonio’s top offensive option late, mailing out checks on Popovich’s behalf one more time. Duncan, almost 39, went to work in the post in overtime, churning around defenders to create his looks and then softly tossing in back-to-back shots. He was only in position to score those crucial points because he managed to play the final eight-plus minutes of the game with five fouls. “He was spectacular,” Popovich added afterward. “He continues to amaze me.”

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Duncan had help. Mills drew groans from the home crowd by finding yards of open space behind Barnes, and hushed everyone by sinking all six of his pressure free throws. Boris Diaw made the right read, at the right time, to feed Leonard for a gimme layup with less than a minute left in overtime for a trademark Spurs play that was the perfect contrast to the Clippers’ ill-timed bumbles. Again, it was all right there—Staples Center was ready to erupt—and then it was all gone. 

The fans eventually filed out quietly, leaving the holiday napkins on their plates and avoiding eye contact with the in-laws.

Rivers and his stars seemed to take the loss in stride, more or less. “It’s not over,” Griffin pledged. “We’ve got to get past it,” Paul added. “We can’t go back out there and play it again.” Rivers mildly snapped on a reporter who asked him how disappointed the loss was: “I was disappointed, but it’s a loss. We win the next one, we’re happy again. That’s called sports.”

They certainly weren’t broken, but the Clippers will now be forced to travel to hostile territory, where they will face a Spurs team that simultaneously got off the ropes and seized home-court advantage.

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“It would have been a huge bind,” a relieved Duncan said, when asked about avoiding the 0-2 hole. “It’s great to get this this game. You’ve got to win on the road to win the series ... so it’s good to grab this one right now.”

In San Antonio, the Clippers will also encounter the same doubts that framed this matchup. Will their bench players be able to produce on the road? Will their starters be able to hold up under huge minutes and with shorter turnarounds between games? Will fatigue lead to more late-game miscues? Can they regain and sustain the control they achieved in Game 1, or was that a one-time, series-opening thing?

There’s no question that this was a loss with the potential to linger. The next chapter of this series will be guided by how thoroughly the Clippers are able to get past what might have been.

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