LOS ANGELES -- Clippers general manager Neil Olshey still had a smile on his face, which tells anyone who was at Staples Center on Saturday afternoon that it was still early.
The orchestrator of this fun-but-flawed team was explaining the challenges that beset his bunch as he walked out to Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals, making a point about how San Antonio's defense demanded that players beyond Blake Griffin and Chris Paul find a way to contribute. Fittingly, Clippers guard Randy Foye hit a three-pointer from the corner just as Olshey's analysis was complete.
"Like that," he said with a laugh. "Maybe I should go home now."
As it turned out, it's the only way he would've headed home happy. By the time the Spurs had roared back from a 24-point deficit to buzzsaw their way to a 96-86 win that all but ended the Clippers' entertaining 2012 campaign, no one could have blamed Olshey or anyone else who's part of this project for not wanting to watch. The same team that pulled off an epic 27-point comeback in Game 1 of the first round against Memphis suffered through the worst kind of symmetry in Game 3 on Saturday, allowing the Spurs to finish what is, according to ESPN.com, the largest end-of-first-quarter deficit ever overcome in the playoffs. No team has ever recovered from the 3-0 deficit that the Clippers now face with Game 4 coming Sunday night.
A Spurs team that looks as dangerous as any of their four championship squads, and one that has won 17 straight, found a new way to embarrass its foe, with Tim Duncan (19 points, 13 rebounds) reminding Blake Griffin of his power forward prominence after his incredible first quarter (14 of his 28 points, five of his 16 rebounds) and San Antonio outscoring the Clippers 58-28 in the second and third quarters.
Beyond that, though, it was the continued stymieing of MVP candidate Chris Paul that even the one who designed the defense had a hard time believing. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich -- who rightfully lauded his own point guard, Tony Parker, for his continued dominance in this matchup (23 points on 8-of-20 shooting, 10 assists) -- said this wasn't the Paul we've all come to know and respect. Paul, who suffered a strained right hip flexor in Game 5 of the first round against but has not missed any games, looked two steps slow against Parker throughout and finished with just 12 points on abysmal 5-of-17 shooting to go along with 11 assists and three turnovers. For the series, the scoring that the Clippers knew they would need hasn't been there as Paul is averaging 9.3 points on 30.7 percent shooting from the field.
"I don't think he's 100 percent," Popovich said. "I'm looking at him, and I know that kid and I just don't think he's 100 percent."
Spurs point guard Gary Neal, however, wasn't quite ready to give Paul the medical defense, "I'm pretty sure Chris is not playing, or feels like he's playing, up to his potential or the way he's played earlier, or maybe in the first round. I'm not taking anything away from Chris, but I think a little bit has to do with our scouting report and our defense. He's not really getting anything easy. He's having to work for everything."
One Clippers source focused more on Paul's fatigue than he did on his health, saying the weight of carrying so many young players all season might be catching up to him at the worst of times. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro alluded to that possibility as well.
"Chris is battling," Del Negro said. "He has given us everything he has. We're not in this position without Chris. I'll go to battle with him every day of the week."
But as Olshey was saying before tipoff, the Spurs weren't beating the Clippers even if Paul was at his best. The other pieces needed to produce, and reserve guard Mo Williams (19 points) wasn't nearly enough considering three Clippers starters (Foye, Caron Butler and DeAndre Jordan) combined for just 11 points.
And while the first-round series victory over Memphis was widely seen as the type of playoff impact that could help Del Negro get his option for next season picked up by the Clippers, it certainly can't help his cause if his team goes out in this sort of overwhelmed, disorganized fashion.
"This is the first step for us, obviously," Del Negro said as he reflected on the bigger picture in play. "We're trying to start something here, and this is a great learning process for us against a team that has been through it for a lot of years.
"We have to continue to complete the process, to put the right pieces around our top guys."
For now, both realities are true. They don't have all the right pieces, nor do they use the ones they have nearly well enough. And that, as is so glaringly obvious, means the Clippers' collective smile is about to disappear.