Saturday's affair between the Clippers and Spurs marked L.A.'s first game since the separation of Chris Paul's shoulder. Somehow Los Angeles underwhelmed even the lowest expectations; it took all of one quarter for San Antonio to mount a 20-point lead, and by the end of the half the Spurs had a 70-35 advantage. A renewed energy and focus allowed the Clippers to narrow the gap in the second half, but the deficit was too much to overcome in what was ultimately a 116-92 loss.
• Life without Chris Paul looks to be as harsh as anticipated. While the downgrade from Paul to Darren Collison was noticeable on the defensive end, it looks as if it will be crippling to the Clippers offense. Such is the cost of losing a superstar; while Collison makes for a decent enough backup, he's out of his depth and stylistically out of sync as a temporary Paul replacement. L.A.'s offense can succeed with him contributing in small doses or merely observing at times (as it did in L.A.'s face-saving third quarter -- a 35-18 spurt in which Collison contributed zero points and two assists), but the fact that Collison doesn't create dribble penetration, subsists on pull-up jumpers and only has rudimentary playmaking skills doesn't exactly bode well.
All of which puts even more pressure on the Clippers who can create their own shots consistently (Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford, the pair of which combined for 43 points on Saturday) while mitigating those most reliant on Paul (DeAndre Jordan, Matt Barnes, Jared Dudley, and Willie Green). In this particular game, the Collison-led offense overwhelmingly led to one of three results:
1) A basic, designed Griffin post-up;
2) A high screen leading to a pull-up mid-range jumper for either Collison or Crawford;
3) A kick-out to one of the Clippers' shooters, who lack the ability to create alternatives if their initial shot is taken away.
Not exactly a world-beating recipe, to say the least. That the Clippers were tripped up so often and so easily on offense is excusable for a night, as L.A. had almost no time to prepare for the turnaround from Paul's injury. The underlying limitations in play, though, won't soon vanish. Collison has become a reserve by his own underwhelming track record and self-limiting style, all of which now hangs around the neck of an otherwise explosive offense.
• As it turns out, allowing 70 points in the first half is not a winning strategy. While the Clippers somehow survived the Mavs' 70 first-half points on Friday night, they had no such luck in rebounding from the Spurs' first-half 70 on Saturday. It was in those opening 24 minutes that the game was lost; Gregg Popovich even found time to play Nando De Colo, who has logged just 10 non-garbage time minutes all season, in the midst of his team's blowout-in-progess.
A sharp turn in the Clippers-dominated third quarter allowed L.A. to pull within 13, but San Antonio re-centered itself in time to win handily all the same. To blame, more than anything, was the Clippers defense. There were only fleeting moments in that fateful first half when L.A. wasn't on its heels in coverage. A single ball screen brought an uncontested lay-up for Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan idled through the motions, failing to control ball handlers, rotate appropriately, or even keep track of their own assignments. The Clips' perimeter defenders, meanwhile, remained glued to the Spurs' corner shooters and completely unwilling to help; it's both an understandable strategy and reflex, but those decisions made L.A.'s frequent breakdowns elsewhere on the floor all the more glaring.
This was a glimpse into the Clippers' worst defensive tendencies. They've had good nights and bad this season, with the starters generally playing well enough to stage a credible team defense. Yet in a blaze of horrid fundamentals and uncoordinated efforts, the Clips' interim starters allowed the Spurs to shoot 81.8 percent from the field in the first half while giving way to a massive deficit. Paul's absence surely hurts in that regard, as he's far more disruptive on the ball than Collison and more persistent when recovering back to his man off a screen. That alone, though, doesn't account for this kind of implosion, which the Clippers in uniform earned all on their own.
• San Antonio notched an asterisked win and a roster loss. While the Spurs would likely guffaw at any specific reading of regular season results, this is nonetheless a team very much in need of wins over quality opponents. Paul's injury unfortunately deprived them of such an opportunity. It's a victory all the same, but the Clippers put up so little resistance in the first half as to fundamentally alter the stakes of the game. This was not a test against a fellow contender, but a dress rehearsal staged in front of a live audience. San Antonio won't again have a crack against a top team until rolling through Portland in two weeks, though shortly thereafter come games against Oklahoma City, Miami, and Houston. If there's a statement to be made, the Spurs will have their podium in due time.
More immediately, though, San Antonio may have to do without the services of Tiago Splitter, whose night was cut short after attempting to power his way through Ryan Hollins in the post. Upon ramming his right shoulder into Hollins' chest, Splitter recoiled, forced up a shot and fell to the floor with an apparent shoulder injury. He logged just 25 minutes of action, but scored a team-high 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field -- in no small part due to the Clippers' inattention. The injury was officially diagnosed as a right shoulder sprain, though a timetable for Splitter's return was not immediately disclosed. Splitter may not be a household name, but it would be a significant loss were he to miss any considerable time. San Antonio's defense has been a bit flimsy of late, and for the Spurs to lose a terrific defensive big won't likely help in their attempts at a turnaround. The frontcourt could also be stretched thin if Boris Diaw -- who missed Saturday's game with strep throat -- isn't ready to go for San Antonio's next game, which would leave Tim Duncan, Jeff Ayres, Matt Bonner, and Aron Baynes to handle the bulk of the power forward and center minutes come Tuesday.