The Los Angeles Clippers played their best game of the series with the San Antonio Spurs tonight in Game 4, and had a chance to win in the closing seconds, but in the end the better team won, completing the four game sweep. Maybe the Clippers can take comfort in knowing that they are the first team to take the Spurs to the wire in over five weeks -- but probably not.
Chris Paul played his best game of the series, scoring a game high 23 on 9-18 shooting, his first decent shooting night against the Spurs, but the Clippers needed him to find one more play, and he just couldn't do it. With 23 seconds left and the Clippers down one, Paul dribbled into the teeth of the Spurs defense and got three Spurs to collapse on him, but could not find the room to kick the ball out to a shooter, and turned it over with 11 seconds left. Then, down two, the Clippers had one more chance to tie or take the lead, but this time Paul's driving floater under intense pressure came up short off the front of the rim. The Clippers have been in these situations, needing a hoop late in a game, many times this season, and more often than not, Paul has delivered. Tonight, he couldn't do it.
The real difference in the final five minutes was that San Antonio continued to run their offense and get good shots, while everything dried up for the Clippers. In the first part of the fourth quarter, it was the Eric Bledsoe show for L.A., and 11 consecutive points from the second year guard followed by an alley oop for a DeAndre Jordan dunk gave the Clippers a five point lead with five minutes left. But that lead was gone quickly, as the Spurs scored two free throws and a three pointer sandwiched around an empty Hack-a-Reggie trip and the teams were tied heading into the final four minutes.
The Clippers final seven points, and all but one of their shot attempts, came from Paul, as the offense got predictable. Meanwhile, the Spurs were getting layups and open looks. Twice in the course of about a minute, Tim Duncan caught Bledsoe overplaying and burned him with a backdoor pass, once to Ginobili and once to Parker. (The Spurs are good for at least one easy back door layup for Ginobili every game.) It would have been great had the Clippers pulled out the win, but it's not surprising that they didn't. The Spurs just got better movement and consequently better shots at the end.
Paul and Blake Griffin combined to score 44 points and Bledsoe finished with 17 on 8-10 shooting, but they didn't get much help from anyone else. Meanwhile, the Spurs came at them in waves -- six different players, three starters and three off the bench, scored in double figures for San Antonio. As a team, the Spurs shot almost 53%, with Gary Neal and Tiago Splitter doing major damage off the bench at 5-7 each. San Antonio's ability to get contributions from across their roster is absolutely remarkable.
Early in this one, it seemed like the Spurs were going to run away with the game, but to their credit the Clippers battled back. A 14-0 Spurs run in the first quarter felt uncomfortably familiar, and they built the lead up as high as 12 in the second quarter. But the Clippers made a push at the end of the half to get back within three, settling for a four point deficit at the intermission. The second half was nip and tuck the entire way -- the Clippers' largest lead was six points while the Spurs never got up by more than five.
For the Clippers, it was a disappointing ending to an otherwise successful season. No one wants to be swept out of the playoffs, but at the end of the playoffs there's only one team left, and no one really expected that team to be the Clippers this year. So they gain valuable playoff experience for the likes of Griffin and Jordan, who figure prominently in future plans, and discover a star in waiting in Bledsoe (a bright silver lining to the second round without question), while losing to a team that is simply playing brilliant basketball right now. There's really no shame in that.
In the end, it's unfortunate that Paul and Griffin (not to mention Caron Butler) were beat up for this series. It would have been nice to see what the Clippers could have done at something a little closer to full strength, but it seems highly unlikely that it would have made much difference. Maybe the Clippers could have won a game or two with Paul at his absolute best (which he clearly wasn't even tonight when he played better), but the Spurs are a juggernaut right now and L.A. wasn't going to stop them.
In the end, the Clippers will have to be content with the best regular season record and the third playoff series victory in franchise history -- and they've got plenty of incentive to come back and work even harder next season to beat both of those marks. The Clippers had little chance of making it to the Conference Finals, but the fact that they were hurting in this series can plants the question of what might have been in their heads. That question can be a powerful motivator heading into next season.