As the second quarter began in STAPLES Center Monday night in the game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs, as a Clippers fan I was very nervous. The Spurs had methodically carved up the Clippers in the first quarter to the tune of 28 points and 59% shooting. Meanwhile, the Clippers' were missing jump shots in the first quarter, seeming to portend a return to the cold shooting stretch from their recent road trip, as if the red hot efficiency of Washington Saturday night were just a mirage.
But it was worse than that. The lineup Doc Rivers trotted out to start the second quarter looked like a disaster. Injuries have forced Rivers to shorten his rotation, and indeed he had two starters on the floor -- but it sure looked to me like it was the wrong two starters. The second quarter began with Darren Collison, Willie Green, Jared Dudley, Stephen Jackson and DeAndre Jordan on the floor. No Chris Paul, no Blake Griffin, no Jamal Crawford. There wasn't even an Antawn Jamison for FSM's sake! Where in the world would the points come from? I was in a full blown panic.
Things did indeed start off poorly. The Clippers first two possessions ended in turnovers -- the next two in missed shots that never looked like they had a chance to begin with. Happily, over the first couple of minutes of the quarter, San Antonio didn't look much better and hadn't scored either. But when Patty Mills hit a three to stretch the lead to 10, it felt like the game was on the verge of becoming a blow out.
The view from San Antonio
The view from San Antonio
Then something very unexpected happened. That wacky makeshift unit that looked like they couldn't possibly score, a unit that had probably not played together all season, went on a 19-0 run. It started with a Willie Green three, featured Stephen Jackson's best sequence of basketball in at least eight months and probably a good while longer, and some tenacious and opportunistic defense that forced five turnovers and also blocked a shot. The Clippers turned a 10 point deficit into a nine point lead, never trailed in the game, and outscored the 19-4 Spurs by 33 points, 94-61, the rest of the way.
The Clippers so thoroughly dominated the rest of the game that the best stretch San Antonio could muster in the second half came with a massive assist from the referees. The Spurs went on a 7-0 run early in the third quarter that featured five fouls and a technical called against the Clippers, zero calls against the Spurs -- and all of the calls were borderline if not flat wrong. The technical foul called against DeAndre -- when he was correctly pointing out to the ref that Tim Duncan had been in the lane for more than three seconds -- was particularly egregious, and Doc didn't like it any more than I do. Players yell at the referees to make three second calls ALL.THE.TIME. How Leroy Richardson decided that this time it deserved a technical foul is beyond me.
The Spurs pulled to within one in that stretch -- a stretch that saw three points taken off the board for the Clippers based on a questionable call, and three points from free throws for the Spurs from calls the Clippers didn't exactly agree with -- but to their credit, the Clippers didn't sulk, they just began the process of rebuilding the lead. They quickly had the margin back up to eight, with Crawford scoring 8 of the team's next 10 points.
Blake Griffin gave one of the grittiest performances of his career, exemplified by a 35 second sequence late in the third. With Jordan saddled with foul trouble thanks to the refs, Griffin was the only Clippers big for most of the third, and he was working hard on both ends. Late in the quarter, he got a defensive rebound and broke out of the backcourt with the dribble. As he crossed midcourt, you could see something in his eyes, and you knew he was going to challenge Duncan. He went right at the future Hall of Famer, threw a spin move at him, and finished the coast to coast move with a tough layup as he fell out of bounds. He then bounced up and sprinted to the other end -- where he drew a charge from Kawhi Leonard. On the following L.A. possession, Paul found Griffin wide open for for a lob off the pick and roll -- and Griffin barely got high enough to dunk it, he was so exhausted. It was an amazing sequence of talent and hard work -- and it was a big part of the reason the Clippers were up eight points heading into the fourth quarter.
The Clippers were fortunate heading into that fourth the Tony Parker had left the game midway through the third quarter and did not return. Not that Parker had been his usual elite self with just eight points on 3-8 shooting in 26 minutes. But still, if the Spurs were going to come back, one would expect Parker to have a hand in it.
With Gregg Popovich forced to play Patty Mills and Cory Joseph in the fourth quarter, it really felt like a mismatch. The Spurs hit back to back threes to cut a 10 deficit down to four with seven minutes left -- but Rivers brought Paul and Griffin back into the game for the stretch run at that point, and the Clippers scored the next six to get the lead back to 10 and proceeded into a 20-4 run to put the game away. Sure, those 29 points featured a clear path foul and some white hot three point shooting -- but the key number there is really the four. Holding the Spurs to four points over a five minute period of a close game is a major milestone in the development of this Clippers team.
The Clippers continue to be a tough team to figure out. Everyone agrees that the Western Conference is much more difficult than the East -- yet the Clippers are now 11-3 against the West, 6-6 against the East. The Clippers record against the West is the best in the Conference, and it has come against some of the best teams -- they now have wins against the Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, Warriors, Grizzlies and Wolves. If they could just get fat on the East like everyone else, they'd be sitting at or near the top of the conference standings.
In the end, it's a most satisfying win. Although the final margin of 23 isn't truly representative of the game, it's still fun. As it happens, it's the Clippers most lopsided win over San Antonio in franchise history, as difficult as that is to believe. But it was more or less the blueprint that you would want from the Clippers: the stars stepped up (Griffin 27/9, 8-14 shooting, 11-15 from the line; Paul 23 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals, 8-13 from the field), they hit their threes (11-23 including Crawford's 35 footer with 12 seconds left) and they played great defense (after the first quarter at least).
More of this, please.