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Clippers-Spurs Preview: Back On Road

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If they can take care of business (and catch a break or two), the Clippers might not have to leave LA again for another fortnight.

San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Big Picture

Winners of four straight (and eight of 10), the Clippers finally seem to be settling into a late-season groove. They have a +11.2 net rating in that stretch, second only to the Warriors in the last 10 games. Even their defense manages to land in the top 10 (although they’re still bottom-10 since the All-Star Break). Despite a few high-profile collapses, there’s a sense that the Clippers are finally congealing again, playing some of their best ball since mid-November.

While tonight’s game is unlikely to have any long-term ramifications (outside of keeping pace with Utah for the 4 seed) since the two teams are unlikely to meet in the playoffs, it should be a good tune-up for the playoffs and a measuring stick to see whether the Clippers really are rounding into early-season form.

The Antagonist

This is the second straight year I’ve gone all-in predicting the downfall of the Spurs, and the second straight year I’ve been left with copious egg on my face. Like Gregg Popovich’s personal brand of pinot noir, the Spurs only get better with age; this year they posted back-to-back 60-win seasons for the first time in franchise history.

They’re still the best defense in the league, they still have the best bench in the league, they still rollick through the competition with no regard for injuries or rest schedules, Popovich juggling lineup combinations like a madman. Last night, they played in Dallas without Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Danny Green, and Manu Ginobili, going down 11 at halftime. It shouldn’t surprise you to find out that they outscored the Mavs 52-28 in the second half, led by 27 points from Bryn Forbes, their 14th man by minutes played this season.

Like L.A., they’ve won eight of 10, beating Utah, Cleveland, and Memphis (x2) at home in that period while mounting a comeback win in OKC. It’s unclear if they’ll be playing at full strength tonight, as Ginobili and Green have sat out the last few games with injury. But the rest of their team should be ready to go, their stars having rested last night so to avoid Adam Silver’s wrath by messing up another Saturday night ABC game.

Clippers Spurs preview 4/8/17

The Matchup

For all the praise showered on the Spurs, the Clippers have really owned this matchup recently. They obliterated San Antonio in the first two meetings this year, including by 24 on the road (by far the Spurs’ worst loss this year). While the Spurs did come back to take the most recent meeting in L.A., that came in Chris Paul’s return from injury and on the second night of a back-to-back after getting run out of Oracle by the Warriors.

Without Austin Rivers, the Spurs second unit seems likely to outclass the Clippers reserves; that group was the difference maker in the Spurs’ two victories in this series last season. Patty Mills is arguably the league’s best backup point guard, Clippers nemesis David Lee has been ridiculously productive off the bench, and that guy Pau Gasol is no slouch either. While the second unit with Paul Pierce actually has a positive net rating (in what can only be described as the upset of the century), that 1) came with Rivers and 2) seems unlikely to hold up against the Spurs Borg.

The most obvious way to counter that would be to stagger CP3 and Blake, but Doc Rivers is still recalcitrant to that idea for whatever reason. Never mind that the Clippers’ most successful efforts against the likes of Cleveland and Golden State the last few years happened when foul trouble forced them into staggering. Doc staggered Blake and JJ (of all combinations) against Dallas as he went with a shortened playoff-style rotation that always left at least one starter on the floor, so there is some hope yet that he sees the light (as he feinted towards in preseason).

Subplots

  • Since retuning from injury, Blake Griffin has fully established himself as a bona fide sniper.
  • Pau Gasol is shooting 54% from deep this year (on 98 total attempts), including an absurd 14/17 from the left corner. Those are November Ray Felton numbers.
  • Speaking of Felton, he’s always given the Spurs problems. The Clippers will need him to come through again tonight.
  • If Simmons gets the start again, tonight’s game will feature a matchup of shooting guards both named Jonathan/Jonathon, both whom have to deal with their names getting constantly misspelled by fans and media. A fun tidbit.
  • Despite the injuries and inconsistency and what-have-yous, the Clippers are actually one of only four teams with a winning record against .500+ opponents, joining the usual suspects in Golden State, San Antonio, and Cleveland. They’re still as capable as any team outside of the Warriors, against any team other than the Warriors.

Prediction

Even if the Clippers blow out the Spurs on their home floor again (as our sister blog Pounding the Rock notes, they’ve actually been responsible for San Antonio’s two worst home losses since 2013), no one will actually care or take them more seriously as a result. Maybe it’d be different if they were fortunate enough to land on the same side of the playoff bracket, but those dreams are long over now. Clippers 102, Spurs 95.