Entering the night’s matchup, the L.A. Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs were just two and a half games apart atop the Western Conference. The Spurs had won nine of their last ten, and the Clippers had won seven of their last ten. The Spurs were riding a five-game win streak and the Clippers had won their last 5 of 6. Both teams are top-ten in Offensive and Defensive Rating. When they faced each other back in November at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, though, it ended in a 116-92 Clippers rout, led by Blake Griffin’s game-high 28 points.
The Clippers were without Griffin, however, due to a knee injury that has him slated to miss at least the next month, and probably more than that. This left more questions than answers heading into tonight’s game. Griffin has been the team’s leading scorer, its second-best facilitator and rebounder, and quite simply, a force to be reckoned with. And against the Spurs, whose biggest strength is its interior personnel, Griffin can still dominate; in his last performance against the Spurs, he shot 13 for 19 from field goal range. It appeared someone would have the tall task of carrying his load tonight. The Clippers, however, decided to win by committee.
The Clippers were down by as many as 6 points, and led by as many as 14 points in tonight’s game. It began as a game of runs, stops, and changes in pace. DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul dominated in the early going, but it was the Clippers’ stellar second-unit performance which ultimately propelled them ahead of the Spurs.
The game began with a stagnant offensive effort by the Clippers, who found themselves down 2-8 and without Luc Mbah a Moute just over two minutes-in due to consecutive costly fouls. But some timely three-point makes and three consecutive Jordan dunks, including his dunk-of-the-year-worthy posterization of Pau Gasol (go look it up if you haven’t seen it already), sparked the team. And once they got going, the Clippers were humming offensively, shooting 50% from the floor (22-44) and 46.2% from behind the arc (6-13) in the first half. They also held the Spurs to 38.5% shooting from the floor and 33.3% from behind the arc during the same stretch.
Entering the second half of the game, though, down 45-57, the Spurs looked more energized and more engaged. They showed greater defensive intensity, highlighted by a Jonathon Simmons chase-down block on a Jamal Crawford layup during the 3rd quarter. They were especially effective in disrupting passing lanes, though many were deflections that put the ball out of play.
Kawhi Leonard, who already had 17 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists at the beginning of the 3rd quarter, was one of the few bright spots for the Spurs tonight. He finished the game with 27 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks, and 1 steal. Gasol, who also had a great game offensively, putting-up 21 points and 9 boards (5 of which were offensive boards), wasn’t much of a factor at the defensive end, though, despite his 2 blocks, and was especially vulnerable in transition. And no other Spurs player, including LaMarcus Aldridge, scored more than 10 points. The Spurs, though, did lead the Clippers in rebounding (54-42), assists (19-18), steals (9-8), blocks (7-6), fast-break points (15-10), and points in the paint (50-42). They also led the Clippers in scoring in the 3rd quarter (28-24) and 4th quarter (28-25).
In spite of all of that, the Clippers managed to pull off a win without Griffin, and without Paul for most of the second half due to a hamstring injury he sustained during the 3rd quarter; it appears to have been a tweak, but his status is now day-to-day.
It Takes Everything
This Clippers second-unit has had some amazing stretches this year. They have been, for the most part, entertaining, unselfish, and balanced. This was a game where their production was needed, and they certainly delivered. The Clippers bench accounted for 58 of the team’s 106 total points. Despite starting-off the game with many isolation-centered sets, they developed rhythm as the game moved along. This collective unit made up of Brandon Bass, Wesley Johnson, Marreese Speights, Raymond Felton, Austin Rivers, and Crawford, were tough to beat at both ends of the floor. They drew fouls, disrupted passing lanes, hit open and contested threes, and shared the ball. They combined to shoot 23 of 52 from the field, and all but Bass played more minutes than any starter not named DeAndre Jordan. And because of their impact on the game, not a single Clippers player was in the game for more than 29 minutes.
This game had everything: precise lobs, thunderous dunks, huge blocks, timely threes, deft passing, and disruptive defense. And this applies to both teams. And despite the Clippers 2-0 record against the Spurs so far, it is clear that they are both formidable opponents for anyone in the league, at full health or not, because of their ability to dig deep into their roster and find new and different ways to win on a nightly basis.