Peeling back the layers of the Spurs and Clippers' first-round showdown
With five of the eight first-round playoff series turned in early, the ahead-of-schedule bout between the Spurs and Clippers has become a sort of saving grace. It's the series basketball fans deserve—so rich in storylines and so consistently proficient that it may well spoil us all.
It also could meet its end on Thursday, when the Spurs (up 3-2) have an opportunity to finish off the Clippers in San Antonio. The only defensible rooting interest is for longevity. We need more of both of these teams, and given that one will be forced out of the playoffs in due time, the least they could draw the series out to a Game 7 and play out overtimes into infinity. In lieu of that, I suppose we'd settle for a final clash or two of the same riveting basketball these evenly-matched opponents have produced over five games. Here's a look through just a handful of the layers within:
Chris Paul's value, strung out minute by minute
In Game 5, Los Angeles' All-NBA point guard played 41 minutes. In the seven minutes—I repeat: seven minutes—he sat, the Clippers' entire operation went to hell. The Spurs outscored them 25-15 in that time over two stretches, a burst that equates to a 67-point margin of victory if stretched out over 48 minutes. All that can be hoped of those minutes without Paul is some kind of desperate, improbable solvency. There's not much advantage to be gained through the likes of Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford, though with sharper play the Clipper bench can perhaps avoid its shameful demise.
This has been a rough series for both of those reserve guards. Rivers had his moment in Game 4 and Crawford has managed two decent scoring performances thus far, though the matchups hardly work in their favor. Rivers, even as he works to compete, has made all kinds of little mistakes in trying to keep up with Spurs guard Patty Mills and can't consistently get the right kinds of help from the Clipper bigs. Watch here as he gets pinched off by the now-ubiquitous elevator doors:
San Antonio makes its opponents pay for small mistakes at a disproportionate rate, making Rivers' minutes more painful than they otherwise might have been. His offense—and indefensible shot selection—speaks for itself. On defense, though, even his hard work goes exploited by superior timing and execution.
Crawford has been altogether more useful, though for the series he's still shooting 35.5% from the field. His tendency to settle for the first remotely plausible shot strikes a sharp contrast with the rest of the execution in this series. Both teams have exercised patience in their half-court offenses in trying to pursue the best options possible—even though the Spurs are much more effective in finding late-clock scoring than the Clippers. Crawford doesn't play that game; he'll step into contested pull-up jumpers on successive transition possessions without much of a thought, often feeding San Antonio runs in the process. Los Angeles needs Crawford, if only because it's a challenge to win a playoff series with so few usable players as it is. But they'll need him to do better, and perhaps move away from those three-guard lineups that pit Crawford impossibly against Kawhi Leonard.
Commencement of Leonard's superstardom
For those who haven't been paying attention, this was the season in which the 23-year-old forward climbed his way up through the NBA ranks to become a full-fledged superstar. His 32 points to blow the doors off of Game 3 should be taken as a warning shot across the league. Fear this man, for he will make your every dribble miserable, rebound the inevitable miss himself, and then proceed to create through all the trappings of a traditional star.
It's telling, too, that Clippers forward Matt Barnes has played smart, committed defense on Leonard to relatively little effect. On this sequence he stays down through a series of fakes and hesitations, only for Leonard to free up Matt Bonner at an inopportune time:
One can't really blame Barnes for this score, but that's so often the point. Even those possessions where Leonard gets a bucket over or around Barnes, it's so often in a way that overwhelms solid defense. Barnes is in the right places and sitting on the right moves. It just doesn't matter all that much when Leonard can manufacture points as he does.
Tim Duncan defying the passage of time
There is no satisfying explanation for how Duncan, 39, is able to do what he does (at present: averaging 17.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.0 blocks, and 1.8 steals per game against one of the best teams in basketball) at this stage in his career. Whatever mysticism may be at work, I'm all for it. Duncan is reshaping the very idea of what it means for an athlete to age gracefully, as subtle adjustments to role and style have prolonged his tenure as one of the league's finest. Timelessness suits him.
The amazingly essential Glen Davis
Of all the Clippers to play in this series, none has registered a higher on-court net rating than Davis. Suffice to say this is baffling; even in accounting for Davis often playing against second-string Spurs, there's no real reason to explain how effective he's been. Success is always relative with the Clippers bench, but Davis has been mobile and scrappy in all the ways L.A. needs him to be.
Matt Bonner finds a role within a role
In all the discussion surrounding the intentional fouling of DeAndre Jordan, not much mind is paid to who is doing the fouling. Kudos to Kevin Pelton of ESPN.com for pointing out Bonner's perfect qualifications for the job. Let's review:
1. Bonner is an accurate three-point shooter (if less so this season) who demands more attention at the three-point line than Boris Diaw. In that, he opens up lanes and undermines defensive rotations that help the Spurs to create open shots.
2. Bonner's greatest flaws as a player—defense and rebounding—are rendered irrelevant by the fact that he won't have to defend or rebound at all.
3. The possibility of Bonner's foul trouble doesn't matter, as he's only seeing situational time in this series for this very specific reason.
A detail like Bonner's fit for the job of fouling Jordan in a way that any player might seem inconsequential. But the specific arrangement of players on the floor always matters, and that the Spurs are able to task fouling to Bonner in a way that also makes him a more useful player is a swing worth noting.
Awareness of the stakes
May you never be in possession of anything that Chris Paul wants as badly as this ball, else I'd fear for your safety:
This much should be assumed, but the degree of engagement from every player involved in this series has been a treat. Track Paul as he darts over to collect a rebound, Manu Ginobili as he scampers through a play progression, or Blake Griffin as he goes from box-out to vertical extension. The Clippers, in particular, are playing their best players to exhaustion and still they work and work and work. To put forth that kind of effort over big minutes while in a show-heavy defensive scheme must be exhausting, and in the cases of the Clips' close losses, draining on every level. Yet neither team seems to have any plans to relent, rounding out the collective smarts and talent on the court with high effort. A genuine shame that one of these teams has to lose.
While we're on that subject: If you've watched the games thus far and come away feeling that Paul, Griffin, Jordan, or any Clipper has "choked," I fear for the sanity of your basketball experience. Mistakes have been made, some—like Griffin's late-game turnovers and Jordan's brutal basket interference—at particularly devastating times. Things happen. Yet on a possession-to-possession basis, all of the principal actors on both sides have lived up to their roles in this series and played pretty tremendous basketball as a collective.
Griffin has made plays in the open court that no big man has any right to, and maneuvered his way time and again to attack the Spurs' offense from the inside. Paul has his fingerprints everywhere and has stretches so exceptional it seems impossible that any player in the league could be better. Jordan has his limitations, certainly, but he's creating opportunities for dunks by running hard, rebounding so well that he forces the Spurs to foul him, and playing pretty exceptional one-on-one defense against any player—big or small—put in front of him. If this is choking, please take my every breath.