I'm not going to say that the series has gone exactly as I thought it would, but here are a couple of facts. Before the series began, I predicted the Clippers would win in six games and I also predicted that the Spurs would win at least one game in STAPLES Center. If you extrapolate that, it means that the teams were likely to split the first four games, with each one winning once on the road. Which is what happened. Now of course the Clippers have to win the next two to make me look like a genius. I'm sure that the prospect of making me look prescient is going to provide extra motivation for them.
What hurts a bit is that Game 2 was there for the taking. In a manner, the Clippers are ahead 2.5 to 1.5 in games. Sadly though, the NBA doesn't count ties, and the Spurs won the coin toss of Game 2, and with it are even in the series. But the good news is that the Clippers have only been truly outplayed one time out of four games -- and they have two of the final three games at home. The smart money at this point has got to be on the Clippers winning the series.
On bouncing back:
My GF asked me before this game if the Clippers would be disheartened after the humiliating Game 3 loss. Quite the contrary, I told her. In my experience, it's much easier for a team to come back from that sort of loss than to come back from something like the Clippers experienced in Game 2. Game 3 was such an outlier, so unrepresentative of the team, that it's easy to dismiss. "That won't happen again" is the immediate, and frankly accurate, assessment. You don't have ot watch film of it because you already know what you did wrong -- everything. So you move on: which is what the Clippers did today in their impressive 114-105 win.
On the officiating:
I was particularly impressed with the way the Clippers kept coming, despite some dubious calls from the officiating crew. There weren't a huge number of bad calls -- but some crucial ones that could have had a big impact on the outcome.
The fourth foul on Barnes was a clean blocked shot -- and when Barnes went out, Kawhi Leonard immediately went off with Jamal Crawford defending him.
The fourth foul on Chris Paul had the potential to be even bigger. It came with three seconds left in the third quarter AFTER Ginobili had already lost the ball on a clean poke away by Crawford. Now, we never saw a good replay, but I've watched the original angle several times and there's just not much there. The ball was loose, the Clippers recovered it, and Crawford had an uncontested layup. Instead, Paul picked up his fourth and Ginobili made two free throws. That's four points and foul trouble on the most important player in the series gifted to the Spurs on that one call.
Finally, the 24 second clock violation that wasn't had me screaming at the TV. It was so obvious that Patty Mills had control, the shot clock operator had it right -- and the refs blew the whistle! (FWIW, I hate the fact that they reset the shot clock on plays like that -- seems to me that control of the ball should include both feet on the ground or some such, but it doesn't. The rule is clear, and Mills clearly had possession.) On the replay, it was equally obvious that the whistle came after J.J. Redick's floater had left his hands, so there was no reason not to count the basket. Instead, the refs mistake (inadvertent whistle) was compounded by a second mistake (disallowing the basket). Fortunately the Clippers scored on the ensuing possession (on a crucial offensive rebound kept alive by Blake Griffin) or I would have really lost my mind.
Doc Rivers handled Bang-the-DJ masterfully today -- and completely differently than he would have during the regular season. In a subtle move at the end of the first quarter, he took DeAndre Jordan out with 24 seconds left while Patty Mills was at the line for the Spurs. Why is that important? Because Gregg Popovich would certainly have fouled Jordan to get the final possession had he been on the floor (the single most advantageous time to use the intentional foul, btw -- a complete no-brainer). Now, Rivers probably should have taken Jordan out with 38 second left when the Spurs committed their fourth team foul -- there was no guarantee that he'd get another chance -- but why quibble? At least he got him out before it cost them.
In the second quarter it was more of the same. The Spurs committed their fourth team foul with 98 seconds left, Rivers took Jordan out when it was Clippers ball with 23 seconds left. Hack averted.
In the third, Popovich forced Rivers hand a bit -- but the truth is it was about time for a Jordan rest at any rate. The Clippers entered the bonus at 3:32 while they were up one and Popovich had Boris Diaw commit an intentional foul at 2:46 with the Spurs up one. DeAndre airballed the second free throw, which might have been a blessing in disguise as Rivers took advantage of the stoppage to get him out of the game. The ABC analysts, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson, remarked on how that was a win for the Spurs since they got Jordan out of the game -- ignoring the simple fact that DJ was going to come out at some point for a rest anyway. The Clippers closed the quarter on a 12-6 run -- that would have been 14-4 without the aforementioned call against Chris Paul.
The fourth, as we've said all along, is always going to be the toughest decision. Let's start by saying that I would have had Jordan on the floor from the first possession of the fourth. He had just taken 2:46 of game time plus the quarter break to rest -- let him play while team fouls are low. Rivers left him on the bench an extra three minutes, which underscores my point that taking him out in the third was not a win for Popovich's strategy so much as just a reasonable time to rest the man. Popovich then tipped his hand when he had Matt Bonner commit an intentional foul, their fourth of the quarter, with 6:22 left and the Clippers leading by seven. Rivers immediately countered by removing Jordan during the stoppage created by Bonner's foul, which was only useful for setting up the bonus, but did not actually put Jordan on the line. The Spurs strategy really backfired in the third and fourth when it was Chris Paul -- a 90% foul shooter -- going ten-for-ten on common fouls in the closing minutes of those quarters, not Jordan at the line.
Overall I'll give Rivers an A on handling Jordan's minutes today. The final tally was DJ 0-4 from the line (only one of those was an off the ball foul) -- and the Clippers taking advantage of every other opportunity presented. I'd give Doc an A+ had he not sat DJ to start the second and fourth -- 32 minutes is fewer than we'd like, and he could have played more in those times when fouling was not an option. Rivers has worked wonders for Jordan's confidence since arriving in L.A., partly because he's handled the free throw issue like a pro -- make them or miss them, but we're not going to worry about it is Doc's overarching message. Taking him out of the game can be handled the same way. Vinny Del Negro always seemed to be in a panic about the whole thing -- just take DJ out when it makes sense and continue to play the game.
On Blake Griffin's rebounding:
I'm a staunch supporter of Blake Griffin of course, but the one thing I've criticized over the last few years has been his rebounding. His per 36 rebounding numbers have decreased steadily and dramaticaly (from 11.4 as a rookie to 7.8 this season) and while some of that can be attributed to the maturation of his game as he moves a bit further from the basket, that only explains a decrease in offensive rebounds, not defensive rebounds. For a 6'10 power forward, 5.8 defensive rebounds per 36 frankly sucks, and he ranked 58th out of 75 qualified players 6'10 or taller this season.
But 19 rebounds in a playoff game? And 17 on the defensive glass? Yeah, I'll take that. He was aggressive, he boxed out, he was a beast on the glass. The Clippers need him to be that rebounder all the time.
On the bench:
The much-maligned Clippers bench was a net plus today, which is huge. Davis, whose box score stats were almost non-existent, did all the little things and posted a plus 12 in 19 minutes. Meanwhile Crawford and Austin Rivers were each plus seven, combining for 31 points. Baby Doc isn't going to shoot 7-8 every game of course, but he was getting great shots, and he absolutely bullied Patty Mills when he got that matchup. I've thought all along that the Clippers could be perfectly effective with an eight man rotation -- this game was the first solid evidence we've seen of that. Let's hope it's not the last.