The San Antonio Spurs opened this Western Conference Semifinals series with a 108-92 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. The Spurs took the lead in the second quarter, took control in the third, and held off a fourth quarter rally by the Clippers to secure the victory.
But if you're a Clippers fan looking for indications that L.A. can compete with the Spurs over the course of this series, they were there.
First things first, the Spurs were playing for the first time in eight days and the Clippers were playing for the sixth time in 11 days. Adrenaline kept the Clippers in the game early, but the fatigue factor caught up with them as the game wore on. Chris Paul made three shots and scored six points in the first quarter -- and never scored again, missing his final nine shots. The Clippers just aren't going to beat good teams when Paul shoots 3-13; ain't gonna happen.
They also aren't going to beat good teams if they allow the oponent to make 13 three pointers on 25 shots. Actually, that 52% success rate represents a major cooling off for the Spurs, who were 7-11 (64%) at halftime and 11-16 (69%)midway through the third quarter. The Spurs led the NBA in three point percentage, but 13 is still a pretty crazy number, and it ties a Spurs playoff record. The Clippers must do a better job rotating to shooters, but it would also help if the Spurs would miss a few shots.
The Clippers must also do a much better job on the boards. The Spurs outrebounded them 47-34, and statistically speaking the Spurs are no better a rebounding team than the Clippers. Hopefully that's just tired legs and will get better as the series wears on. There's no excuse to get beaten that badly on the boards, and the Clippers have no chance if it happens, given how good San Antonio is at all other aspects of the game.
So there's a the two big items on the to do list: defend the three point line and rebound.
The Clippers also did some things well. They defended Tony Parker very well, holding him to seven points on 1-9 shooting. Some of that was Parker missing shots, but Paul and especially Eric Bledsoe did a fantastic job keeping him out of the lane, and the bigs did a good job of collapsing on him when he did get in. Unfortunately, when they tried to trap Parker on the pick and roll, he usually found the roll man, and Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw are very good at making plays once that happens. But on the whole, it's hard to complain with how they defended Parker.
With Paul looking tired and Blake Griffin looking both tired and beat up (he took a knee in his upper thigh just above his right knee on a play in the first quarter to make a mate for his sprained left knee), Bledsoe was by far the best player on the floor for the Clippers tonight. He tied his career high in scoring with 23 points on 10-16 shooting to go along with 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals all in jut 27 minutes. It felt like he could be an X-factor for the Clippers heading into this series, and that certainly seems to be the case after one game. He's the best defender on the team to put on Parker, and he's probably the best defender on Manu Ginobili. The Clippers are going to have to find a way to play him if they are going to win this series.
Like Paul, Griffin started off the game well enough, but then the ball stopped going in the hole. He made his first three shots in the game, and was then 4-14 the rest of the way. Griffin and Caron Butler each had 13 points and Nick Young finished with 13.
The good news there is that it seems as if the Clippers will be able to go small often in this series. Tonight they went not just small, but tiny, as they were trying to come back in the fourth quarter, playing Paul, Bledsoe, Mo Williams, Young and Kenyon Martin together for the first four minutes, and that group went on a 10-0 run. Of course, that's also part of why the Clippers were outrebounded by 13, but at least the Spurs showed no inclination to take advantage of the Clippers lack of size through isolations and mismatches. In contrast to the Grizzlies series, this one is likely going to see a lot of the Clippers small ball lineup. Forget about Reggie Evans, get ready for a lot of Randy Foye or Nick Young at the three, Young or Caron Butler at the four.
Realistically the Clippers were going to lose this game. The Spurs were too rested, the Clippers too tired. But at the same time they served notice that they're not going to go down without a fight. The trimmed what had been a 19 point lead to 8, and might have gotten closer if a few more shots had dropped down the stretch. The Clippers shot close to 50% through the first three quarters, but then went cold in the fourth making just a third of their shots.
Thursday night the two teams will be playing on a more level footing, with a day of rest between games. The Clippers absolutely must do a better job on the boards and defending the perimeter, but if they do that and continue to do the other things they did tonight, they've got a real chance to steal Game 2.