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Clippers Begin Three-Game Road Trip Against Spurs

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The LA Clippers look to get back on track against the San Antonio Spurs, following a two-game skid.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Picture

After a hot 4-0 start to the season, the LA Clippers have dropped four out of their last five games. In those four losses, all of which came at home, Clippers opponents won by an average margin of 12 points while scoring about 113 points per game. And within just the last few days, the Clippers dropped from 1st to 7th place in the Western Conference standings. While they don’t appear to be trending in the right direction, and while the schedule won’t be as easy as it was the first couple of weeks, it’s important to temper expectations and recognize that this team is still learning how to play together.

This overhauled Clippers roster is brimming with potential, but they are still early in the process of formulating a new identity. More than half of the roster flipped during the offseason, allowing the team to get younger, more athletic, and more versatile. Blake Griffin is now the team’s clear leader offensively, while DeAndre Jordan and Patrick Beverley champion the defensive end of the floor. Austin Rivers has been a major contributor at the defensive end as well, but is learning to become more consistent offensively. Danilo Gallinari is also figuring out how to best-become effective in an offensive system yearning for pace and movement, and a defensive system relying heavily on the ability to switch quickly and often. The pieces are slowly coming together despite looking so dominant so early on.

The Clippers entered the season with the goal of pushing the pace while moving the ball more effectively; entering today’s matchup, they rank just 24th in assists per game and 21st in Pace. Both the stats and the eye test let us know that they are nowhere near their goal, even in a fairly small sample size, though their chemistry, defensive effort, and willingness to share the scoring load have all been very reassuring.

Tonight’s matchup with the San Antonio Spurs will present another opportunity, against a very worthy adversary, for the Clippers to continue to learn and develop as a unit.

The Antagonist

Kawhi Leonard, who suffered an ankle injury during the playoffs last year, is still out without a clear timeline to resume basketball activities. A perennial MVP candidate at this stage in his career, his presence has been sorely missed at both ends of the floor for the Spurs, who are also without Tony Parker, Joffrey Lauvergne, and Derrick White. With Gregg Popovich at the helm, however, the Spurs can never be counted out.

The Spurs have remained effective defensively and on the glass this season, but fare around the middle of the pack in nearly every other metric. Because much of the scoring load has fallen on their front court, with LaMarcus Aldridge as their primary option, the Spurs have relied upon scoring from midrange and in the paint. This season, they rank just 29th in the league in 3-point attempts per game (22.1), and are shooting just 34.4% from that range as a team. Their ball movement has not been what we are used to seeing from them, and they have had five games where they didn’t even eclipse 100 points.

The Matchup

The Clippers and Spurs have matched-up fairly well over the last several seasons, despite the many differences in the construct of their rosters. But this year’s Clippers team is largely overhauled, while the Spurs are adjusting to injuries. That said, the Clippers are currently without a loss on the road, while the Spurs have just one loss at home.

The two teams fare pretty similarly in terms of rebounding. The Clippers and the Spurs are the top-two offensive rebounding teams in the league, averaging 12.9 and 12.2 per game, respectively. They also rank 13th and 14th in defensive rebounds, averaging 34.8 and 34.6, respectively. The Clippers’ front court is much more athletic and agile, and will need to be especially aggressive in and around the paint at both ends against a very savvy Spurs front line.

Both teams rely heavily on their front court rotation for scoring, but either team’s guard contributions could be the difference in the game. The starting unit of Danny Green and Patty Mills should be an excellent matchup against Patrick Beverley and Austin Rivers. Every one of these players are two-way threats with the ability to shoot from outside, play downhill, and facilitate. Patty Mills is especially quick in transition and could be a tough cover when he is guarded by neither Rivers nor Beverley. Conversely, the Spurs could have a tough time when Beverley and Rivers are on the floor and neither Green nor Mills is present.

Final Thoughts

This game likely won’t be much of a litmus test for how either team will fare against tough Western Conference opponents down the road; the Clippers are without Gallinari and Milos Teodosic, while the Spurs are without Leonard and Parker. It’s quite early in the season, and there is a great deal of adjustment taking place within each of these rotations. What this game will provide us is a look at how each team attacks individual matchups. How will Jordan, a defensive-minded center, play against Gasol, an offensive-minded center who can stretch the floor out to the arc? How will Griffin and Aldridge, two offensively-versatile forwards, choose to attack one another given the disparity in athleticism? How will Sindarius Thornwell, a rookie learning to contribute on a nightly basis, fare against a high-IQ team when he may need to bare some of the scoring burden? For answers to these sorts of questions, we’ll simply have to wait and see.