Well, here we are again. The good ol’ Clippers are back at it, playing some of their best basketball right as the playoffs approach.
Saturday night’s 98-87 win over the San Antonio Spurs wasn’t necessarily a statement game (and if it was, the announcers certainly didn’t notice), but that’s okay. The Clippers aren’t interested in making statements at this point of the season, but their game spoke pretty well for itself nonetheless.
Perhaps it was the ABC crew’s general disdain for whatever was happening in front of them or the soporific uniform combination, but at first glance this game didn’t seem particularly intense for long stretches. Despite that impression, both teams played the same brand of high-level basketball that we’re accustomed to seeing in these matchups, and the Clippers clearly brought an edge that was all too lacking coming out of the All-Star break.
The opening frame was a seesaw affair, L.A.’s strong guard play countered by bursts of individual excellence by Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, the latter who scored 10 of his 18 in the first. The Spurs led 23-22 after 12 minutes, and seemed like they would create some distance to start the second as Doc Rivers inevitably turned to a full bench lineup.
Instead, a mismatch unit played shockingly inspired ball, flying around on defense and moving the ball with purpose on offense. When the starters filed back in they put the clamps down on San Antonio and got out in transition, generating automatic midrange looks for Chris Paul or easy dunks for DeAndre Jordan. Even with Blake Griffin going 2-10 in the half, they were rolling. A 13-1 run helped lead the Clippers to a nine-point advantage at intermission, and they brought more of the same when they returned, stretching the lead to 59-45 and threatening to blow the game wide open.
Instead, Kawhi took matters into his own hands, scoring 13 of his game-high 28 in a five-minute stretch that brought the Spurs all the way back into it. Re-energized, they flipped the script on the suddenly hapless Clippers. A pair of threes from Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili cut the lead to 68-66, and it looked like it was about to be a dogfight the rest of the way, especially as Chris Paul went to the bench.
But the Clippers subverted expectations once again, and a group led by Blake Griffin (making up for his early absence with a 5-9 second half) finished the third on a 12-2 run to bring the lead back up to a dozen. At that point the rest of the game was a downhill cruise, L.A. easily rebuffing half-hearted feints at a comeback and making extra efforts down the stretch to preserve the double-digit win (their 31st of the year, second only to the Warriors and the third-most they’ve had in any season, behind only 2015 and 2013).
L.A. undoubtedly has the Spurs’ number at this point, as they become the only team this season to win the season series with San Antonio. Their bench — the only reason they dropped two of the matchups last season — has been excellent in the wins this year. Tonight, a five-man lineup we’ve never seen before — Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Paul Pierce, Wes Johnson, and Marreese Speights — went +3 in 8 minutes on the floor, holding the touted Spurs reserves to a meager 94.9 offensive rating in that span.
While it’s not great that Doc still hasn’t committed to fully staggering his stars, he’s slowly getting closer, and in the meantime perhaps it’s a positive sign that he’s still willing to experiment with lineups — for example, we got a few minutes of a Speights-Jordan frontcourt combo tonight, which was surprisingly effective in limited minutes.
The Clippers did a good job of spreading the wealth today; all five starters finished between 10 and 20 points, led by CP3 with a casual 19-8-8. DeAndre threw up 17 and 17, and Jamal Crawford added 12 (at a relatively efficient 50% clip) off the bench.
Meanwhile, it was the usually democratized Spurs who got no production from their role players, with the Parker/Mills/Ginobili trio going just 3-15 combined. Kawhi was magnificent offensively (28-5-5), but LaMarcus seemingly disappeared after a strong first quarter, and Pau Gasol was their only other man in double figures.
The Clippers looked sharper, more cohesive, and seemed like a team that knew who it was and what it wanted to do. While they still haven’t matched the two-way dominance of their early-November zenith, they’ve settled into a very nice groove.
“I think we’re playing with the right spirit right now, the right intensity. It was a good win for us, but with us it’s all about consistency. We’ve been so up and down this season,” Chris Paul said after the game, via Clippers PR.
They’ve been excellent since the last time they were on ABC, winning 9 of 11 in resounding fashion. Over that time, they’re second to Golden State in net rating, buoyed by an offensive rating hovering around 115 and a top-10 mark on the defensive end, surprisingly enough. And after Damian Lillard laid waste to Utah, they’ve reclaimed the right of first refusal to homecourt advantage in the first round.
The late season excellence shouldn’t come as a surprise to attuned fans. The Clippers won nine in a row to close out the regular season in 2013, 20 of 25 in 2014, 14 of 15 in 2015, and 10 of 12 last season. Coming in strong down the stretch in late March and early April has never been a problem for them.
But the postseason outcome has never seemed to be as foregone a conclusion as it is this year. Then again, who knows? Maybe the Clippers will find a way to surprise their audience yet again. They haven’t failed yet.