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Clippers-Spurs Preview: The SEGABABA of SEGABABAs

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There’s no time to rest for the Clippers, who now face the team with the league’s second-best after getting rocked by the best team last night.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Picture:

Back when the schedule came out this game immediately stood as the toughest test among the Clippers’ 17 SEGABABAs. The Raptors played Cleveland and Golden State back-to-back in November, but apart from that I’m hard-pressed to think of any other team getting this insane of a draw.

As expected, the Clippers come into tonight’s game after another loss in Oracle, but they found yet another new and exciting way to fall to the Warriors. However, without Chris Paul you could argue that the Clippers should be more heartened than shattered by the result; this was the most competitive they’ve been against Golden State since their first two meetings last season. Building up a 16-point first-half lead in Oracle and making the Warriors look legitimately shook (for a brief time) should make them feel like they can stay competitive in a playoff series when fully healthy. The team seemed to feel the same way.

While the Warriors are the measuring stick for everyone in the league, the Clippers still come off pretty well when you hold them up against any other top team this year. Unfortunately, Golden State is what matters, especially if the Clippers can’t find a way to sneak into a top-3 seed (which looks a lot more daunting after Houston’s obliteration of the Pelicans last night).

The Antagonist:

Before this season started I doubled down on my Spurs prediction from last year, expecting a significant dropoff in the first year of the post-Duncan era. I believe I went so far as to say that they were more likely to win fewer than 50 games than to crest 60 again.

Welp.

It’s been business as usual for San Antonio this year, who’ve managed to keep the league’s best defense despite losing one of the all-time great interior defenders and replacing him with Pau Gasol. They’ve done what the Spurs usually do: get contributions from guys you’ve never heard of or didn’t expect anything from (e.g. Dewayne Dedmon, Davis Bertans), resurrect the careers of vets long thought dead (David Lee, who has been outstanding this year), and somehow stave off age-related decline just enough with their core guys.

That being said, their usual Borg-like efficiency has turned to putty in the hands of the Clippers this year. The Clippers obliterated them in San Antonio in early November, and then soundly thumped them without Blake Griffin in mid-December, even though they lost Chris Paul to a hamstring injury early in the 3rd quarter. The 5-point final margin of victory belies how close that game actually was, as the Spurs trailed by double digits most of the final quarter to the Clippers’ second unit (who got to close the game out) before going on a 9-0 run in the last 100 seconds, partly thanks to Wes Johnson’s inbounding woes.

The Spurs have always matched up poorly with the Clippers, which was apparent in their epic 2015 playoff series as they had zero answers for CP3, Blake, or DeAndre. That didn’t change last year, as the Clippers’ two losses were almost entirely attributable to their bench getting destroyed by the Spurs’.

The Clippers’ bench has been the biggest difference this year, as they’ve held their own and even feasted at times on San Antonio’s reserves. Among the players who played in both meetings this season, Marreese Speights leads the team in points per game.

One of the keys to their success has been their ability to slow down Kawhi Leonard, who’s shooting 34% from the field and 17% from deep in the two games this year. Although wing defense has long been known as the missing piece for the Clippers, it might surprise you to learn that “Leonard’s lowest career scoring average is easily against the Clippers,” per Pounding the Rock. They attributed it to several factors:

One factor is how well they defend Kawhi Leonard as a team whenever he has the ball in his hands, taking away angles and giving him different looks. The fact that they can usually throw a longer defender at him like Luc Mbah a Moute or Wesley Johnson and that DeAndre Jordan is usually waiting under the basket doesn’t hurt, either.

The Clippers also expose the Spurs’ difficulty guarding elite P&R combos as well as anyone. CP3 rarely misses an opportunity to embarrass Pau Gasol, and DeAndre has gotten the best of him for years now.

Clippers Spurs game preview

Subplots

Injuries: Doc Rivers said before yesterday’s game that Chris Paul was “probably iffy” for tonight’s tilt. Meanwhile, Pau Gasol is expected to make a return tonight from his broken hand.

Whither to, Blake Griffin? After a stretch of excellent games to open the month, Blake laid an egg offensively last night in the Bay. Fortunately, the Spurs pose a much more favorable matchup for him than Draymond Green, so this is an opportunity for him to get back on track/

30 minutes: The 2014 champion Spurs were known (among many other things) for being the first team to not have a single player averaging more than 30 MPG for the season. But it’s been the Clippers who’ve had a more equitable distribution of minutes in head-to-head matchups this year, with no one reaching 30 minutes in either of the first two meetings. Does that change tonight?