SI.com's Ben Golliver looks at the first-round matchup of the Clippers and Spurs, an early meeting between two of the NBA's best teams.
Season Series: 2-2
Efficiency Rankings: Los Angeles (Off. rating: 1, Def. rating: 15, Net rating: 2)
San Antonio (Off. rating: 7, Def. rating: 3, Net rating: 3)
It’s hard to imagine the NBA’s 16-team playoff format producing a better first-round matchup than this. Both teams closed the season with tremendous momentum: the Clippers won 14 of their last 15 games, while the Spurs won 11 of their last 12. The series includes five All-NBA candidates (Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, three 2015 All-Stars (Paul, Griffin, Duncan), an MVP candidate (Paul), three Defensive Player of the Year candidates (Jordan, Duncan and Leonard), and the reigning Finals MVP (Leonard). These teams also sport two of the deadliest starting lineups in the league; the Clippers’ starters boast a +17.7 net rating in more than 1,200 minutes together, while the Spurs’ preferred starters have posted a +23.6 net rating in 265 minutes one year after drilling all comers in the 2014 playoffs.
The most convincing evidence that this is a matchup to remember: the Clippers and Spurs rank No. 2 and No. 3 overall, respectively, in point differential. By comparison, the East’s 3 vs. 6 matchup features a Chicago team ranked 10th in point differential and a Milwaukee team ranked 15th. Usually, when two of the top three teams in the league square off, it’s in the conference finals or Finals. To illustrate that point, the Clippers and Spurs will face a tougher test in the first round, by point differential, than any Eastern Conference team will face until it reaches the Finals. (Any playoff format that winds up guaranteeing that one of the top three teams will be watching the second round from home is in desperate need of reform.)
In addition to the top first-round matchup in terms of regular-season performance, Clippers/Spurs also represents a showdown between a team that hasn’t been able to get over the hump and a team that might as well just refer to itself as “the hump.” The Clippers have never won a title in franchise history, they’ve won just three playoff series since moving to California in 1978, and they are led by Paul, who, despite being one of the greatest point guards of all-time, has never reached a conference finals.
The Spurs, meanwhile, are making their 18th straight postseason appearance in search of their sixth title since 1999, their third straight Finals appearance, and their first set of back-to-back titles. These two teams last met in the 2012 conference semifinals, with the Spurs sweeping the Clippers and winning the four games by an average of 11.5 points.
The Case For The Clippers
The Clippers have many of the elements necessary to defeat the defending champions. L.A. boasts superstar talent in Paul and Griffin, a championship coach in Doc Rivers, an explosive offense that can score at the rim, and from beyond the arc, frontcourt athleticism that will test San Antonio’s ground-bound big men, a roster core with significant playoff experience, and home-court advantage.
Paul has enjoyed another phenomenal season (19.1 PPG, 10.2 APG, 4.6 RPG, 1.9 SPG) that will surely land him All-NBA and All-Defensive honors. He guided the Clippers to the league’s best offensive rating, even with Griffin sidelined for an extended stretch, and he has added motivation after faltering down the stretch of the 2014 conference semifinals against the Thunder. Although Stephen Curry has probably eclipsed him as the league’s top point guard, Paul will enjoy a clear advantage in his individual matchup against Tony Parker, who has rebounded nicely from a shaky start to 2014-15 but still isn’t quite the same offensive threat he was a few years ago.
Flanking Paul are quality space-makers J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes. The former is shooting a torrid 43.7 percent from deep and will force defenses to chase him through screens for hours on end. The latter is a do-everything tough guy who thrives in his role as a fifth option. L.A.’s frontline duo of Griffin and Jordan is back again, with Griffin more willing to shoot from midrange and Jordan in the midst of a contract-year rebounding tear. There isn’t a go-to formula for stopping this heady, competitive group, especially when Paul is fully locked in: Jordan commands attention inside, Griffin can make plays for himself and others, Paul is a maestro in the pick-and-roll, the wings provide plenty of shooting, and the group as a whole moves the ball well.
Although the Clippers rank as an average defense team, that’s mostly a product of L.A.’s top-heavy roster. The Clippers’ starters defend at a top-five rate thanks to Paul’s ability to harass ball-handlers, good energy on the wings, and Jordan holding down the back-line. Put it all together, and there’s really no question that L.A.’s starters can go toe-to-toe with any lineup in the league. And, unlike the last time the Clippers and Spurs met in the playoffs, when both Paul and Griffin were banged up, L.A.’s stars appear to be in good health this time around. Look for Rivers to shrink his rotation as much as possible so that these five players, plus perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate Jamal Crawford, get to decide his team’s postseason fate.
The Case For The Spurs
In addition to entering this series as the more experienced and accomplished team, San Antonio also sports better balance and significantly better depth. The Spurs join the Warriors and Hawks as the only three teams to finish with top-seven rankings on both offense and defense, and San Antonio accomplished the feat despite injuries to Parker, Leonard, center Tiago Splitter, and reserve guard Patty Mills.
As noted above, the Clippers are capable of playing elite basketball on both ends. The question will be whether they can sustain that performance over 48 minutes against a deep Spurs team that returns all of its key pieces from last year’s title run.
The Clippers just don’t have any great answers to a well-balanced, unselfish and tested group that includes Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Cory Joseph, Marco Belinelli, and Mills. Aside from Crawford, Rivers’ back-ups include disappointing offseason addition Spencer Hawes, Hedo Turkoglu (no, he didn’t retire yet), Glen Davis, and Rivers’ own son, Austin Rivers. If that simple listing of names doesn’t make the glaring bench disparity at play in this series crystal clear, note that San Antonio’s reserves averaged 41 points per game this season (No. 2 in the league), while L.A.’s reserves managed just 30.4 points (No. 22 in the league). That’s 10+ points per game worth of added pressure on the Clippers’ start, who collectively played far more minutes this season than did the Spurs’ stars. It’s possible that gap in freshness could prove to be a factor late in games.
Beyond the bench issue, Popovich has to be fairly happy with how he matches up in this series. Danny Green is ideally suited to cancel out Redick, as he’s a floor-spacing shooter who can run all day, too. Duncan, Splitter (who is dealing with a calf injury), Aron Baynes and Diaw have the requisite size, smarts and work ethic to do a reasonable job of protecting the paint against their far more athletic Lob City opponents. As for slowing Paul, Popovich has a number of options at his disposal, including Green, Joseph and, as a trump card, Leonard. To get a sense for how difficult Leonard can make life for opposing point guards, take a look back at this eye-popping rip of Paul from last December.
Nothing about this series will cause the Spurs to deviate too much from their familiar script. The ageless Duncan enjoyed another phenomenal season (13.9 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 3 APG), Leonard has taken the next step towards superstardom by expanding his offensive game, Parker has come on since March, and San Antonio’s offensive system still chews up opponents on a regular basis. No team is unbeatable, especially in the West, but it would qualify as a shock if these Spurs were knocked out in round one.
As bad as they are, the Clippers’ depth issues could be even worse. Crawford was sidelined from early March through early April with a calf injury, forcing the likes of Austin Rivers and Lester Hudson into the rotation. Crawford was able to get four games under his belt before the playoffs, though, including 28 minutes of action in the season finale against the Suns.
Although Crawford’s contributions can sometimes be hit or miss, his hits usually leave a major impression. He averaged 15.5 points per game during the 2014 playoffs, making him the third-leading postseason scorer for the Clippers, and his contributions will be even more important this season. Why? Because L.A.’s only other regular bench scoring presence from last year, Darren Collison, left in free agency, and because Hawes, L.A.’s biggest offseason addition, is averaging just 5.8 points per game and shooting a career-low 39.3 percent.
The goal here won’t be for Crawford to singlehandedly match the Spurs’ second unit. Instead, he’ll be tasked with leading the effort to keep the bench scoring disparity to a reasonable, rather than a ridiculous, spread. If Crawford isn’t contributing meaningfully, the Clippers will almost certainly be up a creek.
- MORE NBA: Final Power Rankings of all 30 NBA teams
Telling Stat: 39.7%
Since joining the Clippers, Rivers has made a point to set up Jordan for success on both ends. That groundwork paid greater dividends than ever this season, with Jordan leading the league in both field goal percentage (71%) and rebounds per game (15).
There is, of course, one area where no one, not even Rivers, can save Jordan, and that’s at the stripe. Foul shooting has long been Jordan’s Achilles’ heel, and this season was no different. Jordan attempted a career-high 471 free-throws, making just 39.7%. Wilt Chamberlain is the only player in NBA history to shoot a lowest percentage (38% in 1967-68) while averaging at least five free-throw attempts per game.
Popovich excels at exposing weaknesses, of course, and he made a point to pick on Jordan during the regular season. In the fourth meeting between the two teams, Popovich relentlessly employed the Hack-a-Jordan strategy, sending Jordan to the line 28 times (he made just 10 attempts). The Clippers wound up winning, with Jordan playing 39 minutes, but it’s safe to assume the strategy will make a reappearance. It’s the simplest way to break up the Clippers’ rhythm and potentially force one of their top players to the bench.
Spurs in 6. Although the Spurs will mount their title defense as a sixth seed—aiming to join the 1995 Rockets as the only sixth seeds to win the championship—they will enter this series as the favorites, according to oddsmaking service Bovada.LV. Leonard’s emergence and San Antonio’s massive depth advantage should prove to be the decisive factors in fulfilling those expectations.