Could they do it again? Could they play back-to-back quality games like the true contenders they're supposed to be? Nope. (Cue the Bronx cheer)
The Clippers have been blamed for not shutting the door on inferior opponents this season. Who would've known that the Spurs would look like one of them? But, a funny thing happened on the way to the 48th minute: the Spurs remembered that they were the Spurs.
Rising up from the ashes and led by still-emerging Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs needed just a few minutes of sharp play to come back from a fourth quarter deficit and claim the victory. Leonard finished the game with 26 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 steals, the last of which was a lunging masterpiece that robbed Chris Paul of the ball, the crowd of their breath, and the Clippers of a crucial opportunity to close a three-point gap.
The closing minutes found an intensity lacking from most of the game, finally evoking the type of crowd reactions you would expect from a clash of Western Conference powers. However, in what is quickly becoming this season's running theme, through most of this game, the Clippers and their opponent were satisfied to play gracious basketball. "Here, you take it." "No, no, you take it." "No, I insist, I don't want it. You have it." The Clippers and Spurs looked like the mediocre playoff seeds they currently are.
Largely, the Clippers played not-defense, mixing up their rotations and allowing the Spurs the rare combination of good looks at both the rim and the 3-point arc. For 42 minutes, the Clippers' strategy of leaving the Spurs wide-open worked to perfection. San Antonio watched shot after shot fall halfway down before petulantly climbing back out. I wasn't watching the television broadcast, but I imagine Ralph Lawler said "in and out" so many times, the Parents Television Council took notice. The Spurs managed to win without converting even 40% of their field goals, and finished a miserable 2 for 19 from deep.
The $2 billion question, then, is what is wrong with the Clippers. Chris Paul finished just one assist shy of his second triple-double of the season. Doc said pregame that Blake wasn't sick, but the workmanlike Griffin had to grind his way to a 23-10-6 line, and even passed up several chances for highlight dunks, save for an early first quarter slam. DeAndre Jordan, who was supposed to be sick but didn't look it, ended the game with 13 rebounds and 5 blocks, but his focus and resulting positioning waned at crucial times near the end. The team looks joyless or listless or whatever word you feel like picking from the thesaurus. Even the bench celebrations lack energy. Maybe the team misses Ryan Hollins more than we thought.
It's no easy answer for new owner Steve Ballmer, whose cheers riled the crowd from the scoreboard before the game's biggest possession, one in which Griffin called for a timeout when the Clippers had none. Perhaps one saving grace is that despite looking less than 100%, Griffin lived up to his power forward name, eschewing midrange jump shots for the deep post looks he has thus far built his career upon.
The Clippers have lots of time to look for answers -- they don't play again until Saturday. Unfortunately, the honeymoon between Ballmer and his ballers (haha -- sorry, I couldn't resist) looks to be over. Gentlemen, it's time to get to work.
Some other (mostly serious) things I noticed:
- Featuring the Four Factors stats on the big board at halftime is cool stuff. Is that new? I encourage anything that teaches fans that basketball is about more than DUNKS ARE BOMB, or whatever the kids say.
- The Spurs miss Tiago Splitter in a bad, bad way. Tim Duncan had to play 36 minutes, far more than he's been accustomed to in recent regular seasons, because the Spurs' second unit simply cannot defend without him.
- Seems like a bad thing that Doc feels the need to have Jared Cunningham on the floor for crucial crunchtime defensive possessions. Shades of Daniel Ewing. (The horror. The horrrrrrooorrrrrrrr.)
- To end things on a brighter note, despite his ailing foot, Spencer Hawes looked downright frisky, showing a deadly combination of strong work on drives to the basket and silky footwork in the paint. He even finished a lob! Matt Barnes made two 3-pointers, one more than he made in the entire preseason. Baby steps, people. Maybe even Big Baby steps.