Clippers Vs. Spurs - Western Conference Semis - Series Preview

Mar 9, 2012; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili (20) takes a shot over Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) during the first half at the AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-US PRESSWIRE
2011/2012 NBA Playoffs - WC Semis
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vs.
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40-26

50-16
Game 1 - May 15th, 2012, 6:30 PM, San Antonio, AT&T Center
Game 2 - May 17th, 2012, 6:30 PM, San Antonio, AT&T Center
Game 3 - May 19th, 2012, 12:30 PM, Los Angeles, STAPLES Center
Game 4 - May 20th, 2012, 7:30 PM, Los Angeles, STAPLES Center
Game 5 - May 22nd, 2012, TBD, San Antonio, AT&T Center *
Game 6 - May 25th, 2012, TBD, Los Angeles, STAPLES Center *
Game 7 - May 27th, 2012, TBD, San Antonio, AT&T Center *
* if necessary
Probable starters:
Chris Paul
PG Tony Parker
Randy Foye SG Danny Green
Caron Butler
SF Kawhi Leonard
Blake Griffin
PF Boris Diaw
DeAndre Jordan
C Tim Duncan
Key reserves:
Eric Bledsoe
PG Gary Neal
Mo Williams SG Manu Ginobili
Nick Young
SF Stephen Jackson
Reggie Evans
PF Matt Bonner
DeJuan Blair
Kenyon Martin
C Tiago Splitter

The Back Story:

The Big Picture:

No one gives the Clippers much of a chance in this series. In the "Expert Picks" portion of the ESPN.com series overview (and they're using the term expert loosely if Jon Barry is included), it's 14 for 14 in favor of the Spurs. In some ways it's difficult to argue with that. The Spurs are red-hot right now, playing better than any other team by far. They swept their first round series with the Jazz and didn't really break a sweat to do so. They have won 25 of their last 27, and in one of those losses they were resting the big three. They have won 14 in a row. Then again, it's not as if the Clippers have been playing poorly. L.A. closed the regular season winning 14 of their final 19, with their final two losses coming while Chris Paul was hurt. As for the playoffs, a seven game win over Memphis is every bit as impressive as a sweep of Utah when you consider the quality of the opponent -- Memphis closed the season just as hot as the Spurs, and was the team no one wanted to face in the playoffs. (Pretty sure the Spurs didn't want to see them after what happened last season.) Expert picks don't mean anything in the end -- after all, how many experts picked the Grizz to beat the Spurs last year? The Clippers did quite well head-to-head against the Spurs this season. They were blown out way back in December in the second game of the season, but they were still introducing themselves to each other at that point, not to mention that Brian Cook was the first big off the bench. Then L.A. had the second game won before a disastrous inbounds play sent the game into overtime. Finally the Clippers broke through in the third game of the season series, and it was the team's first victory ever in the AT&T Center. So L.A. was 5 seconds and one flukey play away from winning the season series with the Spurs. Yes, the Spurs are playing well, but there's really no reason to think that this series is as lopsided as everyone is implying. After all, Tony Parker, the Spurs' best player, isn't even likely to win his positional battle with Chris Paul.

The Subplots

  • Key Spurs Metrics:
    Pace: 92.9 (7th of 30 NBA Teams)
    Off Rtg: 110.9 (1st of 30)
    Def Rtg: 103.2 (10th of 30)
  • Key Clippers Metrics:
    Pace: 89.2 (27th of 30)
    Off Rtg: 108.5 (4th of 30)
    Def Rtg: 105.7 (18th of 30)
    Two elite offenses should make for some pretty high scoring games. The Clippers defensive number is misleading, as the defense improved late in the season. The team's best defenders (Eric Bledsoe and Kenyon Martin) both missed the first half of the season.
  • Tired Clippers, rested Spurs. The Clippers are coming off a grueling and hyper-physical seven game series with the Grizzlies, having played Game 7 Sunday. The Spurs completed their sweep of the Jazz on May 7th, more than a week ago. About the only consolation is that it would have been even worse if the Clippers had won Game 6. Had the Clippers won Game 6 Thursday night, the Spurs series would have started Sunday at 10 AM Pacific -- 37 hours from the conclusion of one series to the start of the next. But from Game 7s day time ending to tonight's evening tip, is more like 56 hours. The Clippers are still at a huge disadvantage in this game, but it could have been worse.
  • Home court advantage. The Clippers stole home court advantage from the Grizzlies in Game 1 with an epic come from behind victory. Winning Game 1 may be too much to ask given the rest discrepancy (see above), but the bottom line is if the Clippers want to advance, they have to win at least one game in Texas.
  • Getting caught up. The real question with the fatigue is, can the Clippers get caught up? L.A. has played three games while the Spurs were resting, and that's not going to change. Game 2, both teams will be playing on a day's rest -- but it will be seven games in 13 days for the Clippers, two games in 9 days for the Spurs. At some point, the older legs of the Spurs may start to feel the pace of the series (the teams play back-to-back games in L.A. this weekend), but the simple fact is that the Clippers are starting off in a hole.
  • Injuries. As if the fatigue factor wasn't enough, the Clippers are also battling injuries. Three starters -- Caron Butler with a broken hand, Chris Paul with a strained hip flexor and Blake Griffin with a sprained knee -- are playing hurt. Sixth man Mo Williams has a sore hand as well. Of these injuries, Griffin's seems the most limiting right now, though he insists he'll play tonight. Meanwhile, the Spurs are as healthy as they've been all season.
  • Lockout season. The last time the NBA had a lockout, San Antonio won the NBA Championship. With key injuries weakening the East, the Spurs look to be in good shape to do it again. In 1999, the lockout preserved the legs of David Robinson (33), Avery Johnson (33) and others. This year, it's Tim Duncan (35) and Manu Ginobili (34) who benefited from a shorter season.
  • Different teams. In some ways these teams have not faced each other this season. The last meeting occurred March 7, about a week before the trade deadline. The Spurs have added Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw. The Clippers added Nick Young. In addition, Eric Bledsoe was still regaining his game shape and confidence at that time (though Bledsoe did have a tremendous six minutes that completely changed the February game). Not surprisingly, the February game was one of the last times that Ryan Gomes played this season. Tony Parker didn't play in the March game. So it's difficult to base predictions on what happened during the regular season since the teams are so different. For the Clippers, their bench is much, much better. For the Spurs, they've barely lost since Jackson joined the team.
  • The March win. The Clippers beat the Spurs in March, but you can't take much away from that game. Not only did Parker not play, but the Clippers shot better than they have all season in that win. Williams was 7 for 9 from deep, and the team made 14 of 27 threes. They even shot 83% from the line. It would be great if Williams and the Clippers shot like that in this series, but don't count on it.
  • Bledsoe. Eric Bledsoe may end up being a huge key to this series. Back in February, in entered the game in the third quarter with the Clippers down 15 and keyed a run of 17 straight to give L.A. the lead. His defense on Mike Conley in the first round was a major factor in that series and his defense on Tony Parker could prove to be crucial here as well. The big question is whether the Clippers can get away with playing Bledsoe and Paul together for long stretches. Against Parker and Danny Green, sure, why not? Against Parker and Ginobili? It becomes more problematic.
  • Defending Ginobili. I've seen it written that the Clippers have no one to defend Manu Ginobili. I don't think that's true. I think both Randy Foye and Nick Young are pretty well suited to defending Ginobili, and Bledsoe could do the job as well if he's not needed on Parker. Ginobili's a tough cover for anybody, but he's not a big post up threat, so while his size will give him an advantage against Foye or Bledsoe, it's not like he's going to punish them in the post. It's really more about defending the pick and roll with either Parker or Ginobili running it. The challenge of the Spurs is much more about team defense than individual matchups (though Parker is a one-on-one nightmare to be certain).
  • Paul's hip flexor. In Game 6 of the first round, the way you knew Paul was hurting (or at least worried about his injury) is that he did not want to guard Mike Conley. In Game 7, he did guard Conley, so you knew he was feeling more confident. Well, Conley's a walk in the park compared to Parker. If Paul's lateral movement is constrained at all, it's going to be a tough, tough matchup. Bledsoe will help, but raises the question of playing Paul and Bledsoe together extended minutes.
  • Green on Paul. During the regular season, the Spurs liked to defend Paul with the length of Danny Green, similar to how the Suns would defend him with Grant Hill. But if Tony Allen couldn't contain Paul, it's hard to imagine how Green can. As was the case with Memphis, how much contact the refs allow on the perimeter will be key to this matchup. If Green is allowed to put his hands on Paul all game, it will favor the Spurs.
  • Playoff Chris Paul. As good as regular season Chris Paul is, playoff Chris Paul has traditionally been better. In the two prior playoffs where he was healthy, he led the NBA in playoff PER. He almost single handedly carried an undermanned New Orleans squad to two wins against the Lakers in the first round last season. This season he's ninth so far with a PER of 25, but that number was depressed by some injury struggles.
  • Playoff experience. Clipper starters Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Randy Foye as well as reserve Eric Bledsoe are experiencing their first playoffs, but let's face it, they have seven more games of playoff experience now (including a Game 7 on the road) than they did a couple weeks ago. The Clippers do have veterans like Chris Paul, Mo Willams and Kenyon Martin with lots of playoff experience. Williams and Martin have each played in the NBA Finals. Of course, the Spurs have more playoff experience than almost anyone.
  • Perimeter shooting. I feel like a broken record on this, but when the Clippers are making perimeter shots, they are a very difficult team to beat. They don't have to shoot like they did in San Antonio in March, but Williams, Foye, Young and Butler will have to make perimeter jumpers for the Clippers to have a shot.
  • Clippers bench. The Clippers bench came through big time in the Grizzlies series. The second unit was a weakness of the Clippers most of the season, but the simple fact of the matter is that this group was not in place until Young joined the team and then Williams returned from his toe injury. They played eight games together at the end of the regular season and now seven playoff games. They've been one of the most effective benches in the 2012 playoffs -- but the Spurs second unit has Manu Ginobili, so it's pretty good too.
  • Hack-a-Clipper. Gregg Popovich is the king of the hack strategy. You can fully expect the Spurs to put Clipper bigs on the line in certain situations throughout this series. He'll always have plenty to choose from, as L.A.'s entire big rotation is terrible from the line. Pop will almost certainly foul at the end of the first three quarters, when the Clippers are trying to go 2-1 on possessions. He won't be shy about fouling if they fall behind either.
  • Adjustments. Popovich is the best coach in the league. Del Negro is a disciple of Pop, but has a long way to go. We can probably expect the Spurs to win the X's and O's part of this series.
  • Compare and contrast. The Clippers are coming off a series against a Grizzlies team that was at it's best when it forced turnovers, grabbed offensive rebounds, and pounded the ball inside. The Spurs could not be more different. San Antonio is the best three point shooting team in the league, Memphis was among the worst (and aside from Game 1, was abysmal from deep against the Clippers). Memphis is a great offensive rebounding team, the Spurs are a terrible offensive rebounding team. Memphis led the league in turnovers forced, the Spurs were 24th. So basically, ALL the keys from the first series are non-issues in this one. Sure, you want to limit turnovers and control the defensive glass, but those things are relatively straightforward against the Spurs. But that Clippers defense that looked so great against an anemic Grizzlies offense, now has to recover to shooters at the three point line -- where they allowed the fourth highest percentage in the league this year. This series will be determined at that three point arc -- if the Spurs go nuts out there, which the data indicates they will, it will not end well for the Clippers.
  • Spurs pick and roll defense. According to Synergy Sports, the Spurs were dead last in the league in defending the pick and roll. With slow footed bigs like Duncan, Blair, Bonner, etc. that makes a lot of sense. Good thing for them they're not facing a great pick and roll point guard. Oh, wait.
  • Tim Duncan, center. The Spurs continue to insist on calling Tim Duncan a power forward. But when he's starting next to a 6'8" dude with point guard skills, it's disingenuous. Duncan has been the biggest player on the Spurs for several years now, he plays closest to the basket, he's a center.
  • Get the Spurs perspective at Pounding the Rock.
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