Regarded as an underdog despite their seed, the Los Angeles Clippers silence their doubters in Game 1…
A few days ago, when ESPN released its “expert” predictions, I scrolled through for amusement. Of course, I agreed with most of them: Golden State is going to roll New Orleans, the Grizzlies are probably going to get through the Blazers, and although the Mavericks might give the Rockets a little scare, Houston will probably survive, too. But, interestingly enough, about 60 percent of those polled chose the San Antonio Spurs to defeat the Los Angeles Clippers, despite the fact that San Antonio lacks home-court advantage. But this, too, was a pick with which I agreed. I just believe in Gregg Popovich too much.
Last night, however, the Clippers made me look a little stupid. Granted, it’s only one game, and if Wednesday night the Spurs romp Los Angeles then Game 1 will be a distant memory, but the Clippers made about the biggest statement you can possibly make in a Game 1 between a three and a six seed. In fact, they made the biggest statement out of any team in the postseason so far.
The Spurs aren’t only the defending champions, not only do they have the best coach in basketball, but they rode into the playoffs winning 12 of 14 games. “Their defense,” said Gregg Popovich after the game, “was better than our offense. Their aggressiveness, their athleticism, their physicality really hurt us.” And that’s exactly the most frightening part of this game for the Spurs and San Antonio fans everywhere: the Spurs looked old. The Spurs looked like they couldn’t keep up physically.
The Clippers enjoyed a 23-12 edge in fast break points. They blocked eight shots. They stole the ball nine times. They smothered San Antonio’s shooters, holding the Spurs to 10-33 beyond the arc and 34-93 from the field overall, a sheepish 37 percent. The Spurs enjoyed a slight rebounding edge, but that statistic is slightly warped because San Antonio missed 59 shots, 23 of which were three-pointers which create long and awkward rebounds; the Clippers missed only 38. Blake Griffin looked healthy, and dominant. Chris Paul looked dominant. DeAndre Jordan, criticized so often, did exactly what he needed to do: rule the paint. He blocked four shots and grabbed 14 rebounds. Jamal Crawford provided a torridly efficient spark off the bench, shooting 7-10 from the field and 3-4 beyond the arc.
Los Angeles scored in a variety of ways and in every facet of the game besides free throws, where they made only 17-28, largely because of Jordan’s line. They defined efficiency: 56 percent beyond the arc, 51 percent overall, 46 points in the paint. San Antonio, one of the league’s elite defensive teams, needs to recollect itself.
Moving forward, there’s one subtly important statistic that has the chance to influence how the rest of the series goes: minutes per game. The strategies of Doc Rivers and Gregg Popovich in this category couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. Rivers threw his best players on the hardwood and kept them there: Griffin played 43 minutes, Paul and Jordan 38, J.J. Redick 36 and Matt Barnes 32. Popovich, on the other hand, remained faithful to his own system: Only one player on the entire roster—Kawhi Leonard—logged more than 30 minutes, and even then he only played fractionally over. 11 players on San Antonio’s roster played at least 10 minutes compared to just eight for Los Angeles.
All in all, the Clippers made a loud statement in Game 1. They looked not only like the better team, but the vastly superior team, winning in the end by 15 points but, perhaps more importantly, squelching every Spurs’ run. Every time San Antonio inched close—closing the gap to nine or seven or five points—someone in red and blue was there to put an end to it.
The series is far from over, and the narrative could change in the blink of an eye, but right now Doc Rivers and his team should be feeling pretty good.