With 5:41 left in the fourth quarter, Chris Kaman found Tim Thomas out of the double team for a three that gave the Clippers their first lead of the fourth quarter.
When Tony Parker answered with a corner three (only his 9th of the season in 31 tries), the Clippers did something they haven't done in at least three seasons - they ran a play for a lob. (Remember when Sean Rooks used to throw the high-low lob to Odom and/or Miles? Good times.) It worked beautifully. With the ball in Thomas' hands beyond the arc, Mobley ran a shuffle cut from the strong side to the weak side, taking Bowen with him. Kaman set the back screen on Ginobili, and with the weak side cleared out, Thornton back cut to the rack all alone. Unfortunately, Thomas' pass was too close to the rim, Al couldn't handle it, and to make matters worse, Mobley picked up the loose ball and missed a wide open 10 footer. It was the last time the Clippers had the ball with a chance to tie.
When you watch the Clippers enough, you start to notice something - they do not improvise well as a team. They NEVER successfully slip a screen for a layup. They NEVER get a back door cut. They RARELY even connect on a pass over the top. Defenses can front Kaman all day without fear of getting hurt. (I'm not sure on this one if it's the passer's fault for not getting the ball there, or if it's Kaman's fault for not being in the right spot. It's hard to catch that ball over the top - you have to hold your position long enough to keep the defender away, but not so long that you can't get to the pass. Kaman invariably holds on too long and the ball goes out of bounds.) Even the pick-and-roll, the most basic play in basketball, requires an element of improvisation that seems to elude the Clippers.
Successful NBA offenses have multiple options, which good teams instinctively and collectively choose on the fly. If the defense overplays the screen, the screener slips it, the ball handler delivers the pass, lay up. (See Oberto, 8:21 of the 4th). The Clippers execute their sets well - but they never seem to get the easy buckets that come from breaking off the play in an organized manner. If the back door is open, the entry passer more often than not seems confused. "Why are you going to the basket? I'm supposed to pass you the ball on the wing?" All of these guys have played pick up basketball at some point in their lives right? How is it possible that they have so little feel for the nuances of the game? Or am I being too harsh?
The Thornton lob is a great example. A great set. (Of course, the reason it worked so well is because they haven't run a lob play in three years. When you break out a new play on a team, you really want to convert it, because it will never be that open again.) But MDsr seems to have beaten the playground out of these guys to the point where no one can actually THROW a lob - or at any rate, Tim Thomas can't. (Hey mp, they do throw lob passes on the playgrounds in Patterson, NJ, right?) In a league where every team knows every other team's playbook, the ability to successfully, as a team, execute options 1-b, and 1-c, and 2-d, and 3-omega on any one set is the difference between the good offenses and the bad offenses. The Clippers have a bad offense.
When you look at the box score for this game, the Clippers more than held their own. In fact, with significantly better shooting, low turnovers, and only a slight deficit on the boards, you wonder how the Clippers could have lost. And then you see it. Free throws.
I'm going to tread lightly here. The raw numbers are ugly - clearly this is where the game was lost. The Spurs shot 36 free throws to the Clippers 12. Ginobili himself shot 13 free throws, more than LA as a team. The Clippers did not get to the bonus the entire game (that's quite a rarity). The disparity in foul calls was not quite as lopsided, but noteworthy nonetheless - 26 to 16.
There are a couple of probable 'reasons' for this discrepancy. The biggest issue is that the Clippers own free throw machine, Corey Maggette, got exactly zero trips to the line. Why? Because he was being guarded by Bruce Bowen. Not only is Bowen a good defender, who keeps players from being able to do what they want to do, the NBA long ago decided that he is allowed to use his hands in ways not legal for other players. Whistles don't work when Bowen plays D. On the other hand, don't dare touch Tony or Manu en route to the basket. Not on their first step... or their second, third or fourth for that matter. Honestly, I'm much more upset with the total disregard for the traveling rules than I am with the foul calls.
Here's a Bowen example - if you happen to have the game on the DVR still, this is worth a look. At 8:43 of the 4th, Cat Mobley receives the pass at the top of the arc. His right foot, his pivot foot, is just inches beyond the line. He jab steps to his right and fakes a pass, and Bowen puts a hand on his hip and pushes him. Look where Mobley's pivot foot is now - two feet beyond the arc. He pushed him hard enough to move him - a lot! Now, either that's a travel or a foul (hint, it was a foul, but of course there was no whistle). Bowen is by far the most 'handsy' defender in the league, but it's simply never called.
'Great' defensive teams (great is in quotes because the reputation often exceeds the reality) get the benefit of the doubt from the officials. The Ben Wallace Pistons were by far the worst in this regard. The Spurs are getting close to Detroit territory. When it becomes really annoying is when the players begin to EXPECT the benefit of the doubt, complaining about calls that are clearly fouls, as if to say, 'Hey, sure that's a foul for someone else, but I'm Bruce Bowen!' Look at Duncan's reaction to calls against him at 5:02 of the 2nd and 6:11 of the 4th. Two of only three fouls called on Duncan the entire game, both of them OBVIOUS fouls (not hacks, not egregious, but fouls - you can't get arm with ball, that's the rule), and Duncan is completely flabbergasted. The implication of course being that most of the time officials let him foul.
Anyway, I'm not a conspiracy theorist. I don't think Eddie Rush, Derek Richardson and Ed Malloy WANTED the Spurs to win (although I am willing to surmise that they EXPECTED that outcome and might therefore have influenced it subconsciously). I didn't watch this game thinking that LA was getting jobbed - but reputations precede players and teams, and there's little question that the Spurs benefited from theirs today. Put it this way - Corey Maggette averages 9 free throws per game, and has been to the line in every game he's played in this year, until he faced Bruce Bowen. I'm willing to give 4.5 of that to Bowen's actual defense - the other 4.5 goes to Bowen's reputation.
How about some bullets:
- Al Thornton - team high 40 minutes - 17 points and 8 rebounds. He really needs to start making his free throws (65%) and passing the ball some (2 assists today was a career high, if you can believe it), but other than that, what's not to like? By the way, I sure do like him starting over Thomas at the 4. I mean, it's not like we're losing anything in rebounding (Al is averaging more rebounds per minute) or defense (they both leave much to be desired, but Al's more likely to improve in his rookie season than Tim is in his 10th, right?) Sure, he's a little undersized, but against most teams he's plenty big.
- Kaman had a great game, and compared very favorably with Duncan. In identical minutes, Kaman won the statistical battle in points (20 to 17), blocked shots (3 to 0), and turnovers (1 to 4) and tied in assists (3 to 3), while also grabbing 14 rebounds to Duncan's game high 17. For Chris, 3 assists to 1 turnover is the money stat - if he can be anywhere near that efficient handling the ball, he really will become an all star. 7 for 11 shooting is a nice thing too.
- Sam Cassell had his second consecutive 1 field goal, 2 point night. When we were pining away for Sam's calf strain to get better, we were kind of planning that he'd be the scoring option at point guard, not Brevin Knight.
- Remember last year how the Clippers seemed to catch every break as regarded opponent strength? They played the Raptors without Bosh, the Rockets without Yao and TMac, the Heat with Shaq and Wade, the Warriors with seven players.... Well this season, it's the opposite. Other than Stephen Jackson, I can't think of a top player they've avoided and they've got to be one of the only teams in the league to play the Heat WITH Wade and Shaq. Tony Parker came back for the last Spurs game, and Ginobili came back for this one, and it's not a stretch to say that the Clippers would have won the game had Ginobili not played. Outside of their big three, only one Spur had more than 1 field goal, and that was Matt Bonner with an awesome 2. Still Parker (26), Ginobili (23) and Duncan came to play (17).
Is it a moral victory? Whatever. Now Dwight Howard comes to town.