A night after losing to the Brow-less New Orleans Pelicans, the Los Angeles Clippers went into San Antonio, where they rarely win, and handed the Spurs their biggest home loss in the history of the series between these two teams. The Clippers led for all but 29 seconds of the game, led by 14 at halftime, and maintained a double digit lead for the final 20 minutes of the game.
Three seasons ago the Clippers had a big win against the Spurs in San Antonio in which LA made every shot they looked at, including 14-27 from beyond the three point arc. This game was not like that. It wasn't just a case of the Clippers playing out of their heads. The Spurs weren't exactly super sharp, but they were still the Spurs and the Clippers outplayed them in every aspect of the game.
Most impressive among a slew of good performances from the Clippers were the big three, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan. Griffin scored 31 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and handed out five assists. Paul had 20 points, including a number of important baskets when San Antonio seemed poised to make a run. Jordan had eight point, four blocked shots and 19 rebounds. As a team, the Clippers, who often struggle on the boards, outrebounded the Spurs by a margin of 56-36.
Rebounding was not the only area where the Clippers turned a weakness into a strength for at least this game. The Spurs have always had one of the top benches in the league, but the Clippers bench that has so often given up leads this season was the better reserve unit tonight. Usually completely dependent on the scoring of Jamal Crawford, the Clippers bench put in 35 points tonight, despite the fact that Crawford shot just 2-10. Spencer Hawes was particularly good, scoring 11 points in 24 minutes, including three three pointers. Hawes posted a game-high plus/minus of +22 and was called on to play crucial minutes with the first unit when Jordan got into foul trouble. It's too early to claim total success, but the Austin Rivers acquisition does seem to be paying some dividends. The second unit is playing with much better pace, playing good defense, and making things happen in ways that simply weren't happening when Jordan Farmar was running the floor. Rivers scored 11 tonight, his third consecutive game in double figures -- something Farmar did not manage in half a season.
And continuing the theme, the Clippers' previously suspect defense held the Spurs to .373 from the field, which might have been the law of averages making up for the .636 they shot the last time these two teams met. And while San Antonio did miss some open threes, they still made a respectable 10-30, so it was not simply cold shooting that gave the Clippers this win. The LA defense was energetic on close outs and sharp on rotations, and no one was more active than Crawford, who had two blocked shots and three steals in a rare game where he had more positive impact on the defensive end than he had on offense.
The loss in New Orleans is a shame of course, but the simple fact is that a split of the two games in this back to back is a good outcome -- and better than if the win and loss had been reversed. A win over the Spurs gives the Clippers a chance at a split of the season series, which could be significant as a tie breaker in the standings. More importantly, winning in San Antonio gives the Clippers confidence in the event that the teams meet in the playoffs, which is entirely possible.
This win also should put to bed once and for all the trope about the Clippers struggling against the good teams. The team is now 11-5 against the top nine teams in the West, having beaten everyone with the exception of Memphis, whom they've played just once. The Western Conference playoffs may come down to matchups -- but there's no one that the Clippers are really going to fear in the post season.
Speaking of which, the team suddenly finds itself third in the conference standings, now ahead of Portland and tied with Houston. We'll see where they stand at the end of the Grammy trip, but the Blazers and Rockets and Mavs all appear to have some issues at the present time -- so if they can manage to hold their ground on this trip, they'll be poised to take a run at Memphis and maybe even Golden State after the All Star break.
There's no denying this was a big win. The Spurs are as healthy as they've been all season, and had been playing very good basketball. But tonight they were no match for a Clippers team that may be hitting its stride.