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Clippers-Spurs Preview: A road test

The Clippers take their 7-2 record and five game winning streak into the AT&T Center, where they've only won once since the building opened. The Clippers beat the Spurs handily 12 days ago -- can they do it again?

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
2012/2013 NBA Regular Season

November 19th, 2012, 5:30 PM
AT&T Center
Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM
Clippers Tickets
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Tony Parker
Willie Green SG Danny Green
Caron Butler SF Stephen Jackson
Blake Griffin PF DeJuan Blair
DeAndre Jordan C Tim Duncan
Advanced Stats through Nov. 18
93.8 (6th of 30) Pace 92.6 (12th of 30)
109.4 (5th of 30) ORtg 107.9 (8th of 30)
99.4 (3rd of 30) DRtg 102.1 (10th of 30)
Chauncey Billups (Achilles surgery) out
Kawhi Leonard (tendinitis) out
Trey Thompkins (knee) out
Gary Neal (lacerated finger) questionable
Grant Hill (knee) out

The Back Story:

The Big Picture:

Twelve days ago when these teams met the Clippers had lost two straight and it seemed inevitable that the mighty Spurs would add to their misery. Instead the Clippers blew San Antonio out of STAPLES Center to begin what is now a five game winning streak. Along with the Grizzlies, the Clippers and Spurs are the hottest teams in the Western Conference, and it's a little unfair that they keep running into each other. An L.A. win tonight would match the team's longest winning streak from a season ago -- in just the tenth game of the season -- but it certainly won't be easy. After all, wins at the AT&T Center have been somewhat rare for the Clippers -- as in, one win ever. That one win however did happen to occur in their last regular season meeting in the Alamo City, so the Clippers are actually working on a two game regular season winning streak against the Spurs (we're just going to ignore those pesky playoff losses for now). Back on November 7 the Clippers' youth and athleticism made the Spurs look old and slow. Can they do it again, or will the execution of the Spurs make the Clippers look inexperienced? It could go either way.

The Antagonist:

Everyone knows the Spurs are all about the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, right? Well, the team is 8-2 so far with Parker and Ginobili producing at or near career low levels. Parker is shooting just a hair over 40 percent so far (is a career low) and Ginobili is below 43 percent, which is the worst he's shot since his second season in San Antonio. Duncan on the other hand is having a career best year -- at the age of 36 in his 16th season. Ten games in, Timmay's PER of 27.8 is the highest of his career -- and this is a guy who won a couple of MVPs a decade ago. To help Duncan out while Parker and Ginobili struggle, the Spurs have their best supporting cast in years -- but that cast will be weakened a bit in this game as small forward Kawhi Leonard nurses a sore knee; sharpshooter Gary Neal could also miss the game. Like the Clippers the Spurs are deep and the very talented Stephen Jackson will play big minutes in the absence Leonard. But looking at this game, the Spurs will almost certainly need Parker and Ginobili to play more like themselves tonight -- they won't have enough to handle a red hot Clippers team with just a Big One. Ginobili showed signs of snapping out of his slump in their last game against Denver, so that could be bad news for the Clippers.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. You expect these to be among the best offenses in the NBA -- they were first and fourth a season ago in offensive efficiency. The number that jumps out at you is the Clippers defensive efficiency -- allowing less than a point per possession so far, third best in the league.
  • On the road. The big caveat on the Clippers 7-2 start is this -- they've only played two road games, only left L.A. once, and have yet to leave the Pacific time zone. How will they fare in Central Standard Time? We'll start to find out tonight.
  • Bad playoff memories. The Clippers were of course swept out of the playoffs last season by these Spurs. San Antonio has been the toughest of opponents for the Clippers in recent years (which made the victory 12 days ago that much more impressive). For more on the recent history between these teams, be sure to check out Lucas Hann's post on the subject.
  • Steals and blocks. There are subtle ways to play good defense and there are more obvious ways. The subtle ways include challenging shots, closing down driving lanes, taking charges. The more obvious ways include the things that show up in the box score like steals and blocks -- where you simply take the ball away from your opponent or send their shots back at them. The Clippers are excelling at some very visible defense this season. They are leading the league in steals per game which contributes to their high forced turnover percentage, second best in the league. As you might imagine, Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe lead the way in these thefts. They are also blocking a lot of shots, fifth most in the league -- DeAndre Jordan gets about 2.5 per game, sixth in the league. You don't have to get a lot of steals and blocks to be a good defensive team, but when you do it can build on itself as you pump up your own defensive effort and get into the head of your opponent.
  • Rankings and Standings. In ESPN's latest Power Rankings that came out this morning, the Clippers are third and the Spurs are fourth (Grizzlies and Knicks are 1-2, which is hard to argue with right now). The Clippers lead the Pacific Division by 2.5 games (and the Lakers are now tied for second after getting back to .500). The Clippers have the best point differential in the Western Conference, scoring 9.3 more points than they give up.
  • Little suspense. As I wrote yesterday, Clippers games have featured only one fourth quarter lead change all season, and none since early in the fourth quarter of the first game. It seems unlikely that the Clippers will run away with a game in San Antonio, so maybe we should be hoping for a close fourth quarter tonight.
  • Duncan. The idea that Duncan is playing at this level at the age of 36 in his 16th season is just nuts. He likely won't be able to sustain it, but ten games is beginning to be a decent sample size -- and regardless of whether he keeps it up or not, it's impressive. According to J.R. Wilco of Pounding the Rock, Tim Duncan dropped 15 pounds or so and came into camp leaner and more ripped than ever. Which, if indeed that explains his current productivity, begs the question of why he was all soft and mushy and relatively unproductive before. Lazy bastard.
  • Absurdly efficient. The Clippers offense has been absurdly efficient this season. Consider this: Blake Griffin makes more than half of his field goal attempts. He true shooting percentage is a respectable .549. And he ranks NINTH on the team in TSP. Only two Clippers (Matt Barnes and the ice cold Lamar Odom) have TSP's below .500.
  • Blair starting over Diaw? Boris Diaw started every playoff game for the Spurs last season and the first five games this season (through the Clippers game in L.A.) Since then he has come off the bench in four of the last five. I'm not sure why Gregg Popovich is experimenting with something that seemed to be working so well, but the Spurs do have some front court depth to work with. DeJuan Blair has gotten the last few starts, and they have Tiago Splitter up front as well.
  • Bledsoe. I asked Eric Bledsoe after practice recently if he relishes matching up against certain second string point guards, if he sometimes looks at his opponent and just knows he's going to take the ball like a bully taking a nerd's lunch money (I didn't word it that way, but that's what I was thinking). Bled said no, he doesn't think like that -- but I'm not sure I believed him. When Parker rests tonight (and Gregg Popovich is a coach who likes to limit the regular season minutes of his stars so Parker plays just 30 minutes per game) the Spurs will turn to either Neal (not a true point guard and sporting a sore finger if he plays at all) or Patty Mills (usually third on the depth chart) or perhaps French rookie Nando de Colo. That's blood in the water for Bledsoe -- and I predict he'll get a steal and a breakaway off one of those guys within two minutes of such a matchup.
  • Getting up for good teams. The Clippers remain undefeated this season against 2012 playoff teams -- a perfect 6-0. Not only that, the early schedule has been front loaded with the very best of last season's teams. There are 15 2012 playoff teams (excluding the Clippers themselves) but there were only eight with a regular season winning percentage above .600 (again excluding the Clippers). L.A. has played (and beaten) six of the eight, with another meeting with San Antonio tonight and the Thunder looming Wednesday in OKC.
  • Crawford. The Clippers leading scorer so far, and indeed the leading per minute scorer in the NBA, Jamal Crawford has been an absolute revelation for the Clippers. They don't hand out awards after eight games, but if they did he'd be a unanimous choice for his second Sixth Man Award.
  • Three point shooting and free throw shooting. The conventional wisdom heading into the season was that the Clippers had two big weaknesses -- three point shooting and free throw shooting. But so far the team is well above the league average in both categories, hitting 37 percent from behind the arc and 78 percent from the line. Crawford, Butler, Green and Paul are all hitting their threes and the team's best foul shooters are getting to the line a bunch, not to mention that Blake Griffin is much improved so far.
  • Jordan. Let's not forget that DeAndre Jordan had arguably his best game as a pro back on November 7 against the Spurs -- 20 points on 10-12 shooting, 11 rebounds and 4 blocks all in just 27 minutes. Jordan and Griffin used their considerable athletic edge over the San Antonio bigs to run their way to easy baskets all night. Can they do the same in Texas?
  • Hack-a-Jordan. I think we can assume that Gregg "the Brain" Popovich will employ the Hack-a-Jordan strategy tonight if the opportunity arises. He is particularly fond of using it at the end of quarters in order to get an extra possession. I'm not a fan of the hacking strategy from a purist standpoint or even from a statistical standpoint in most cases, but it actually makes perfect sense at the end of a quarter.
  • Get the Spurs perspective at Pounding the Rock.
  • Lyrical reference:

    The B-52s-- Party out of Bounds

    What can you do to save a party?
    Parcheesi? Charades? A spur-of-the-moment
    Scavenger hunt, or Queen of the Nile?
    Who turned out the lights!

    Bombed, crashers gettin' bombed
    crashers gettin' bombed, bombed, bombed, bombed, well who's to blame?

    It's difficult to believe that the B-52s released the album containing Party out of Bounds in 1980 -- and that it was their second studio album! I nominate the B-52s for best party band ever. Anyone care to comment? Man, I'm really old.