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Clippers-Spurs preview: Home to the best

The Spurs have just four losses, tied for fewest in the mighty Western Conference. They never seem to miss a beat, they just keep winning.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
2013/2014 NBA Regular Season

December 16th, 2013, 7:30 PM
Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Tony Parker
Jamal Crawford SG Danny Green
Jared Dudley SF Kawhi Leonard
Blake Griffin PF Tim Duncan
DeAndre Jordan C Tiago Splitter
Advanced Stats
97.77 (9th of 30) Pace 96.99 (12th of 30)
105.8 (7th of 30) ORtg 107.1 (4th of 30)
100.8 (8th of 30) DRtg 95.6 (2nd of 30)
J.J. Redick (wrist) out
Tiago Splitter (calf) probable
Matt Barnes (torn retina) out

Reggie Bullock (sprained ankle) out

Maalik Wayns (meniscus surgery) out

The Back Story (teams split the season series last year, two games each):

-- 11/07/12 in Los Angeles: Clippers 106 - Spurs 84 | Recap | Box Score

-- 11/19/12 in San Antonio: Clippers 92 - Spurs 87 | Recap | Box Score

-- 02/21/13 in Los Angeles: Spurs 116 - Clippers 90 | Recap | Box Score

-- 03/29/13 in San Antonio: Spurs 104, Clippers 102 | Recap | Box Score

The Big Picture:

The Clippers return home after a tough seven game road trip to the frigid east coast. The trip seemed like a disaster in that they lost several winnable games and never played well until Saturday -- but they still managed a winning record at 4-3 on the trip, so it certainly could have been worse. The team had been out of sync on offense ever since J.J. Redick was sidelined with a wrist injury, but when Doc Rivers put Jamal Crawford into the starting lineup on Saturday in Redick's place instead of Willie Green, things suddenly began clicking. It's one game, and probably more coincidence than anything, but the team had been getting off to very slow starts, so having Crawford out there from the opening tip in place of the cold-shooting Green certainly is a logical move. Of course, it also helps when Chris Paul scores 38 points on 14 shots -- which isn't going to happen very often. The Clippers could use big games from Paul and Blake Griffin tonight against the Spurs -- and their recently improved defense will be sorely tested by the Spurs precision execution.

The Antagonist:

Some day the Spurs will be too old. Or at least some day Tim Duncan (37) and Manu Ginobili (36) and Tony Parker (31) will be too old. But apparently that day has not arrived yet. The aged Spurs, had the second best regular season record in the Western Conference last year and advanced to the NBA Finals, and they've opened this season 19-4, currently tied for the second best start in franchise history. Most of the NBA has been awaiting the day when the Spurs would be too old for many years now, and it never seems to arrive. While it's now been seven seasons since the Spurs last title, they're still a constant force in the Western Conference, and came within seconds of another championship last June. Think about this -- the Kobe-Pau-Bynum Lakers that went to three straight Finals and won two, have risen and fallen since the Spurs last won a ring, and yet the Spurs are still a title contender with the same core group. So I've stopped predicting the fall of the Spurs -- some day it will happen, and then there will be more room at the top for teams like the Clippers, but I'm just going to wait for that day instead of trying to foretell it. It helps the Spurs' cause that they continue to identify and draft potential stars like Kawhi Leonard in the middle of the first round -- and it helps even more that coach Gregg Popovich's system is so finely tuned that he can seemingly plug in any motivated, intelligent NBA player and get great production from him.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. The Clippers have gone from near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency to the top 10 (number eight to be specific) in a matter of about three weeks. During that time, they've actually had the best defensive efficiency rating in the NBA, 94.5 points allowed per 100 possessions. Of course, none of those offenses were the Spurs, the fourth best offense in the NBA and an executing machine that punishes missed rotations with layups and three pointers.
  • The trip. The Clippers seven game road trip was not great, but it certainly could have been worse. In seven games, they really only played well for about three halves of basketball -- but still managed to come home with a 4-3 record. The defense was good the full trip -- though playing against some pretty bad teams certainly helped there -- but the offense was mostly terrible, primarily because the team couldn't make jump shots. They finally broke out of the shooting slump in Washington on Saturday, and hopefully that improved shooting will carry over to the home stand.
  • Tough home stand. While the team is coming off seven road games against weak Eastern Conference teams, they're not looking at a home-heavy stretch against Western Conference teams in the playoff race. The Clippers have eight more games in December, six at home, and seven of the opponents are .500 or better. This stretch includes the Clippers' first meeting of the season against the Spurs and the Blazers, at the top of the conference, and five West teams fighting for lower level playoff seeds, the Pelicans, Nuggets, Wolves, Warriors and Suns. The Clippers are the only team in the NBA that has played better against the West than against the East, so maybe it's a good thing that they've got all of these tough Western foes coming up. Maybe.
  • Paul's big night. Chris Paul had scored with an efficiency rarely seen on Saturday. He was 11-14 from the field, missing his final shot, his only two pointer miss of the evening. He made 5-7 three pointers. Taking the five three pointers into consideration, he scored 27 points on 14 field goal attempts, an effective field goal percentage of .964. Now consider that he was also 11-11 from the free throw line. Those free throws boost his True Shooting Percentage to 1.008; he was over 100% in True Shooting on the night. So yeah, that's not bad.
  • Splitter back? Tiago Splitter has missed the last four game with a sore shin. However, he is expected to be back for this game. Splitter is an unspectacular player, but he does a lot of important things very well, including pick and roll defense and finishing around the basket.
  • Hack-a-Jordan. We can be almost certain that if the game tonight is close at all, then Gregg Popovich will have his team intentionally foul DeAndre Jordan at some point. No NBA coach employs the hack strategy more than Pop, and no NBA starter shoots free throws worse than Jordan (.395). Pop is one of many who will foul at the end of quarter for an extra possession (smart) and he's perhaps they only one that will foul when he has the lead (dumb). Interestingly, while the Spurs only have four losses this season, Pop's decision to foul Dwight Howard while protecting a lead actually contributed to one of those losses. But as for tonight, unless this game is a complete and total blow out, Jordan will receive an intentional foul at some point.
  • Crawford the starter. Jamal Crawford got his first start as a Clipper in Washington on Saturday. It's mostly a coincidence that the Clippers offense looked good for the first time in almost three weeks, but there may be something to Crawford's presence as well. Since J.J. Redick has been hurt, Willie Green has been the starter, as Doc Rivers has followed the recent trend among NBA coaches of promoting a third stringer to the starting lineup so as to minimize the impact on the rotation. But let's face it, Green was third string for a reason, and the team had been getting off to slow starts in Redick's absence. Perhaps even more important than the start was the fact that Crawford played a team-high 39 minutes on Saturday, including the entire second half until Rivers cleared his bench with three minutes left. Given how successful the strategy was in Washington, it seems clear that Rivers will start Crawford again.
  • Bench issues. The obvious downside to starting Crawford is that the bench is weakened. The Clippers only got 11 points from their reserves on Saturday. with five each from Darren Collison and Antawn Jamison. But this is a misnomer for a couple of issues. Whether Crawford produces from the bench of from the starting lineup is a wash -- bringing him off the bench might help the bench numbers, but it doesn't help the team. More importantly, Rivers seems to be realizing something that we've been advocating here for awhile, that he needs to have either Chris Paul or Blake Griffin on the court more. On Saturday, he went a total of 30 seconds in the fourth quarter (before garbage time) without one of them on the floor. Until they get some of their injured players back, the Clippers are just going to have to rely on their starters more, and shorten the rotation to eight or nine guys. The bench production won't be great, but by keeping some productive starters out there longer, hopefully the Clippers can avoid giving up significant ground in games.
  • Parker and Paul. There's little question from a stats-based, productivity standpoint, that Chris Paul is the best point guard in the NBA right now. However, Paul's lack of post-season success will always be a factor some will point to in arguing against him. If you're going to go with some combination of greatness and postseason success, then Tony Parker of the Spurs is the only other point guard in the NBA at present for whom you can make a case. Parker is almost impossible to stop -- and he's won three rings in San Antonio. He's not actually better than Paul -- but he's awfully damn good.
  • Spurs role players. I say all the time that the NBA is a superstar league, and certainly the Spurs have their Big Three of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, whom they've had together for a long time now (see below). But what distinguishes the Spurs from other NBA teams more than anything is their ability to get great productivity out of their role players. Eight players on the Spurs have played more than 300 minutes while posting a PER of 15 or higher -- no other team has more than six "above average" PER players. And while I don't necessarily think win score is the most accurate advanced stat, who do you think has the highest win score per 48 on the Spurs? That would be Tiago Splitter. Second is Patty Mills. In fact, Splitter and Mills are both in the top 10 IN THE NBA in WS/48. Everyone who puts on that uniform can beat you.
  • Spurs for life. Prepare to have your mind blown. Kobe Bryant is in his 18th season with the Lakers. Dirk Nowitzki is in his 16th season with the Mavericks. And the big three Spurs -- Duncan (17), Parker (13) and Ginobili (12) are the only other players in the league who have a dozen or more years with the only NBA team they've played for. That's just crazy. They've managed to keep those guys together for 12 years! And there are only five guys in the league who've even been with a single team that long!
  • Shooting. It's pretty much a given that you're going to lose when you shoot under 40% from the field (as the Clippers did in losses in Cleveland and Brooklyn). Likewise, if you shoot over 60%, as the Clippers did most of the night in Washington, you're going to win. So what's going to happen if the Clippers have a good, not great, shooting night? It would be nice to see if a combination of improved defense and reasonably proficient shooting would be enough to win games.
  • Duncan. Last season, at the age of 36, Tim Duncan had one of the most productive individual seasons of his Hall of Fame career. He achieved his career high for a season in blocked shots per 36, and was near his career high in rebounding. He exceeded his career averages in scoring and assists. All of which is unheard of for a 36 year old. He began this season ice-cold -- but has again been terrific lately. He's averaging 17 points and almost 13 rebounds while shooting 55% in December.
  • Trivia Time. Tim Duncan and Chris Paul are first and second in NBA career points scored among Wake Forest alumni. What former Clipper is third in career scoring among Demon Deacons in the NBA?
  • Connections. Newest Clipper Stephen Jackson played for the Spurs on two separate occasions, starting all 24 playoff games in the 2003 championship run. He was also on the Spurs last season, but was waived just before the beginning of the playoffs, so it could be awkward between Jack and Pop tonight. Chris Paul and Tim Duncan are far and away the two greatest players to ever come out of Wake Forest University. Clippers coach Doc Rivers spent the final two seasons of his playing career in San Antonio, where Gregg Popovich was an assistant coach at the time.
  • Get the Spurs perspective at Pounding the Rock.
  • Shakespearean reference:

    As You Like It -- Act III, Scene 4 -- Celia

    O, that's a brave man! He writes brave verses, speaks brave
    words, swears brave oaths, and breaks them bravely, quite
    traverse, athwart the heart of his lover; as a puny tilter, that
    spurs his horse but on one side, breaks his staff like a noble
    goose. But all's brave that youth mounts and folly guides.