There were a handful of things I was hoping to see from the Los Angeles Clippers as they opened the postseason against the San Antonio Spurs. There are a some things that are more or less givens for the Clippers: Chris Paul is going to be consistently great, J.J. Redick is going to hit shots, DeAndre Jordan is going to rebound, etc. etc. But heading into the playoffs there were a couple of crucial variables.
1) Would Jamal Crawford still look rusty from his injury absence as he did in the final four games of the regular season?
2) Would Blake Griffin settle for his improved mid-range jumper, or would he insist on getting into the paint, where he remains significantly more efficient?
There are lots of other keys to this series of course. Three-point shooting and match-ups and turnovers and all the usual stuff. But before Game 1 I really did not know what to expect from Griffin and Crawford.
Well, Game 1 is over, and both of my X-factors broke favorably for the Clippers -- perhaps more favorably than I ever imagined.
Jamal is certainly not going to shoot 7-10 with three three-pointers every game this post-season. He's a notoriously streaky shooter, and he'll go through some bad streaks. But after a month long layoff with a very sore calf, I was at least a little concerned that he might have some trouble finding a good groove. He found it. He found it fast, and it makes a huge difference for a starting unit that needed some help from someone.
As for Griffin, I've defended over-willingness to shoot 17-footers all season with one big caveat -- he needed to get to the rim when it mattered, i.e. in the postseason. The Clippers have reached that point in their development where the regular season is a bit like practice. And Blake was practicing a new skill in game situation.
His shot chart from Game 1 was exactly what you would want: 17 of his 20 field goal attempts game inside the paint. The funny thing is that he actually struggled to convert shots that he usually makes, especially early in the game. But he got great shots all game, and the Clippers posted a relatively easy 15 point win. It could have been worse for the Spurs had Griffin made a few more shots he probably should have.
Paul led the Clippers with 32, Griffin finished with 26, and Crawford had 17. Redick had a sub-par game with just 10, making just 4-13 from the field, and it didn't much matter.
It's just one game, but the Clippers looked like the better team in this one, plain and simple. Take away a 10-0 Spurs run to open the second quarter against the Clippers' second unit and the game would have been a wire-to-wire blow out. L.A.'s starting unit ranged from +12 to +23 in plus/minus -- and it felt like more than that honestly. The starters can't play the entire game (or rather they won't, I suppose they could), but they can play a lot. And honestly, they didn't even log that many minutes tonight: Griffin was out there for 43, but Paul and Jordan only played 38 each.
Rivers had the full second unit on the floor for about three minutes total -- and that was way too much. He learned his lesson though and he shortened the rotation to eight in the second half. That's where I wanted it to be heading into the playoffs, and that's where it should be. I think Doc thought he could take a chance with an 11 point lead when he put that group out there late in the first -- but that lead was gone soon enough.
So should we be worried about the bench going forward? It's certainly not a strength for the team, but the eight-man rotation looked fine in the second half, and eight is more than enough in the playoffs. So I'm inclined to believe it's not a problem.
I've hesitated to say it, but I've thought it for a while now: the Clippers are the more talented team in this series. That doesn't mean they're the better team. That doesn't mean they'll win. But they're better at four of the five starting positions (I'm counting Griffin-Jordan as a collective win over Duncan-Splitter in the front court) and they may be better at sixth man also. People pick the Spurs in this series based on a lot of intangible stuff -- and that stuff matters -- but the tangibles? That's almost all L.A.
With the win, the Clipper exorcise the sweep demons of 2012, which is big for them. The Spurs had all that momentum from winning 11 of their last 12 -- and now that's gone. But this will be a series before it's over.
I keep coming back to one thing in this matchup -- the Spurs have shown no ability to stop the Clippers' offense. In the last three regular season games and now in Game 1, the Clippers are getting great looks whenever they want them. That bodes very, very well for the series.