The Big Picture
Despite sitting just two and a half games apart atop the Western Conference and comparing favorably in a variety of metrics, the L.A. Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs look like different teams heading into tonight’s matchup when using the eye test. The Spurs, a perennially Playoff-bound team, appear to be on track to do more of the same; with two-way superstar Kawhi Leonard taking the reigns, LaMarcus Aldridge becoming increasingly comfortable within the Spurs’ system, and Gregg Popovich at the helm, the Spurs appear poised to remain a top-two seed in the West. The Clippers, who possess equal parts athleticism, depth, and veteran-savvy, have had some inexcusable lapses over roughly the last month, and now find themselves without Blake Griffin for at least the next month.
The Spurs are a team on a roll right now, winning nine of their last ten games and their last five in a row. And despite Popovich’s penchant for resting players on the road, especially in back-to-back situations, the Spurs have lost only once in 16 road games this season, with their lone loss against the Chicago Bulls decided by a mere 4 points. They continue to dominate on the road by finding ways to win by committee, with no player outside of Leonard and Aldridge averaging more than 11.8 points per game. They also do this by playing their own brand of basketball, which favors size and efficiency in place of space and speed.
Despite the league’s overall trend towards more three-point shots and uptempo basketball, the Spurs are relatively old-fashioned. Per NBA.com, the Spurs attempt just 22.4 shots from behind the arc per game, ranking them 27th in the league. In addition, they rank 26th in the league in Pace (96.18) and 17th in points per game (104.0). In spite of that all, they rank 4th in the league in field goal percentage (46.9%) and 2nd in the league in 3-point percentage (40.4%). They also average 23.7 assists per game on 38.3 field goals made; their ability to move the ball well in the half court has been difficult for opposing defenses and could pose a threat for the Clippers.
While the Clippers remain the only team in the league with a top-5 Offensive Rating (5th: 110.8) and Defensive Rating (5th: 102.0), they will be facing a Spurs team that is now 4th in Defensive Rating (101.4) and 6th in Offensive Rating (108.5). And more importantly, they will be facing one of the league’s toughest combinations of big men.
The Spurs’ top-3 scorers make up its entire starting front court; Leonard leads with 23.9 points per game, followed by Aldridge’s 16.6 and Gasol’s 11.8; this same group also happens to lead the team in rebounding, starting with Gasol’s 7.9 rebounds per game and followed by Aldridge’s 6.9 and Leonard’s 5.9.
But neither Gasol nor Aldridge possess much athleticism or lateral quickness, which is part of the reason why teams like the Clippers, who have athleticism up-front, have been able to succeed against the Spurs, taking advantage of the interior mismatch. Without Griffin, however, the Clippers may be forced to make a choice between size and speed tonight.
No Blake Griffin, Time for Mo Buckets
When the Spurs hosted the Clippers earlier this season, it ended in a 116-92 Clippers rout. In that blowout game against a formidable Spurs team, Griffin scored 28 points in 29 minutes of play, while shooting 13 of 19 from the field; Griffin’s scoring more than made up for the game’s 24 point differential. The Spurs, despite possessing perhaps the best one-on-one defender in the league in their front court rotation, had no answer for him.
Griffin’s presence will surely be missed, and Doc Rivers will likely experiment with his rotation, as the game progresses, to try to fill that void. Paul Pierce started in place of Griffin against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night, but he simply will not make the impact the Clippers need against a Spurs team with size, savvy, and full health. Neither Pierce, Wesley Johnson, nor Brandon Bass (and certainly not Diamond Stone) provide anything close to the combination of scoring and rebounding that Griffin provides. For this reason, and whether he starts or not, Marreese Speights should be Doc’s go-to guy in place of Griffin.
Speights, in just 15.6 minutes of play per game, is averaging 9.1 points and 5.0 rebounds this season. Extrapolating his overall production two-fold puts him at 31.2 minutes, just a couple minutes shy of Griffin’s average of 33.6 minutes per game; this would also project Speights to produce about 18 points and 10 rebounds per game. Combining Speights’ 44.6 field goal percentage and 83.3 free throw percentage along with his ability to stretch the floor makes it more alluring to utilize his talents. Whether or not he can produce with the same efficiency when his minutes are doubled has yet to be seen, but it seems there’s no other choice at the power forward position.
Aside from scoring and rebounding, though, perhaps what Griffin brings best is athleticism. If the Clippers can find ways to get the ball to DeAndre Jordan, along with quicker, more agile players like Johnson, Bass, Austin Rivers, and Raymond Felton in transition offensively, the Spurs may have a tough time keeping up. Doc may instead opt to play more three-guard lineups that can stretch the floor, keep the tempo high, and put the ball down on the floor when needed.
It Takes Everything
If the Clippers hope to hand the Spurs their second road loss of the season, they must disrupt the Spurs half court offensive sets. The Spurs offense is predicated upon ball movement, as is illustrated by their 23.7 assists on 38.3 field goal makes per game. Defense should be the Clippers’ primary focus entering tonight’s matchup.
The Clippers are currently 5th in Defensive Rating (102.0), 10th in defensive rebounding percentage (77.5), 8th in steals per game (8.3), and 1st in block attempts per game. With wingspan at nearly every impactful position in this matchup, the Clippers need to create deflections and prevent the Spurs from getting into offensive sets. It will take everything for the Clippers to defeat this streaking Spurs team, but even without Griffin they are talented and capable-enough to pull it off.