LOS ANGELES – Tim Duncan stood alone on the baseline and looked up at the rim. He said something to it. He walked around it. He said something else to it. He eyed it from different angles, as if he were viewing an old friend in a new light, and was disappointed by what he saw. The Spurs and Clippers retreated to their respective benches for a timeout and still Duncan lingered beneath the backboard. Seven minutes remained in the third quarter and he had just missed a layup. He seemed to be asking the rim why.
This has been the series of unanswerable questions. Why are two teams this good facing each other in the first round? Why is the best basketball of the playoffs constantly interrupted by intentional fouls? And why, in the end, do Duncan and the Spurs always bend that iron to meet their will?
The Clippers, a franchise with a long history of heartache, added one more night of anguish. Chris Paul was spectacular for four quarters and Blake Griffin was brilliant for three, but the final minute was another monument to the team’s misery: a block at the rim by the 39-year-old Duncan on the 26-year-old Griffin; an offensive interference call against DeAndre Jordan on a potential game-winner by Griffin; and a bungled defensive rebound on a missed free throw by Danny Green that cost L.A. a last-gasp possession.
Less than a year after the Clippers frittered away a seven-point lead in the final minute of a Game 5 against Oklahoma City, and less than a week after Griffin committed the turnover that lost Game 2 against San Antonio, they tripped over the finish line again. As they trudged off the court Tuesday night, they were the ones staring at the rim, wondering why. Head coach Doc Rivers railed against the officiating—“We got some really tough calls tonight, some brutal calls” he lamented—but the Clippers also missed 13-of-14 three-pointers, 16 free throws, and made one ghastly error at the worst possible time.
[daily_cut.nba]No one can say for sure whether Griffin’s floater with 4.3 seconds left, and the Clippers down a point, would have gone down. But the moment Jordan reached for the ball on the cylinder, tipping it through, Griffin grabbed his head with his hands as if he were watching an accident unfold. The basket was disallowed and the series was turned, perhaps permanently.
“We got lucky,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “The ball was going in.” Luck is no longer a valid explanation for all the different ways the Spurs find to prevail. Sixteen times in the Duncan era they’ve faced 2-2 ties. Thirteen times they’ve captured the pivotal Game 5. Twelve of those times they’ve advanced. Tuesday represented another Game 5, another 2-2 tie, and another Spurs victory, 111-107 at Staples Center.
Jordan was the last player to dress in the Clippers locker room, replaying the tip in mental slow motion. “I can’t blame anybody for that but me,” he said. “I was trying to make a play on the ball, but it ended up being a dumb play.” Instead of 32 points, Griffin finished with 30, plus 14 rebounds and 7 assists.
But he logged 41 minutes, to compensate for the Clippers unreliable bench, and he seemed spent by the end. “It’s a factor for everybody,” Griffin said. The other factor, still looming over the Western Conference, is the ageless Duncan.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich watched Griffin puree the Spurs defense for two-and-a-half quarters, then changed course and put Duncan on him. Griffin went 1-for-9 in the fourth, as Duncan dared him to shoot outside, and he was unable to connect.
When Griffin did attack in the last minute, Duncan turned him away with a momentous block. “His timing is just impeccable,” Popovich said. “He has a hard time jumping over the proverbial piece of paper, and he gets in position. He knows where to be. He’s played long enough.”
Exhausted and annoyed, the Clippers face an elimination game Thursday at AT&T Center, staring at the possibility of another empty spring. Since Paul joined forces with Griffin and Jordan, the Clippers have made the playoffs four times, but they’ve never advanced beyond the second round. They’ve seen the Spurs win a championship and the Warriors hurdle them in the West hierarchy. If they fall on Thursday, or Saturday, calls will come for a breakup.
But this is not your ordinary first-round matchup. It’s safe to say the Clippers and Spurs are both currently among the five most feared teams in the NBA, and with the Cavaliers ailing, you could argue they’re in the top three. This series will likely prompt much discussion in the league office, about the fairness of the seeding system, as well as the entertainment value of the free throw. Once again, Popovich ordered his team to intentionally foul Jordan, and another rollicking game was ground to a halt.
What to do about the seeds, and the fouls, are issues for summer. Right now, the Clippers must find a way to extend their spring, and turn the iron men back.