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Clippers-Spurs Playoff Preview: Which Western Power Emerges Victorious?

Stop complaining, Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs fans. Yes, you both got the short end of the stick, but you’ll have to deal with it.

Thanks to some standings gymnastics on the final night of the NBA regular season, the 56-26 Clippers and the 55-27 Spurs, arguably two of the top three teams in the Western Conference, will be facing each other in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.

The third-seeded Clippers are riding high into the playoffs with a 14-1 surge, while the sixth-seeded Spurs have won 21 of their last 25 games. Los Angeles has the best offense in the NBA and San Antonio ranks in the top seven in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Clippers have the league’s second-best net rating while the Spurs are third.

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? By the end of this series, we’ll know.

How did the Clippers get here?

In short, because of their starters.

Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan is the NBA’s best five-man group. Not only did the unit play more minutes together than any other quintet in the league, they absolutely dominated their opponents all season.

Throughout the year, the group outscored its opponents by 451 points. Only the Golden State Warriors’ starting lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut was remotely close to that figure, with a point differential of plus-329.

Paul was once again an MVP candidate this season, averaging 19.1 points and 10.2 assists while playing typically great on-ball defense. He even participated in all 82 regular-season contests for the first time in his career.

Griffin and Jordan were also both outstanding. Griffin’s combination of finesse and power on the offensive end made him a nightmare matchup and Jordan’s brute strength and leaping ability came in handy catching lobs and patrolling the paint on defense. For Jordan, it was most definitely a career year:

Redick is an ace three-point shooter at the 2 position. But he also has an improving floor game and is becoming lethal from mid-range, leading to a career-high 16.4 points per game. Barnes is a decent spot-up shooter who provides toughness and a high basketball IQ at the small forward position.

You might notice I haven’t mentioned the Clippers’ bench yet. That’s because the team has very little to speak of in reserve, aside from perennial Sixth Man of the Year contender Jamal Crawford. The rest of the names on the bench are either has-beens or never-beens, including Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis, Austin Rivers and Spencer Hawes.

Who’s the Clippers’ X-Factor?

It has to be Crawford. If the 35-year-old 2-guard isn’t crossing opponents up and hitting his jumpers, the Clippers’ bench has no chance of staying afloat against the Spurs’ reserves.

According to HoopsStats.com, Los Angeles averaged 30.4 bench points on the season. That means Crawford’s 15.8 points per game accounted for more than half of the Clippers’ production off the pine. The team’s bench efficiency differential is also negative-9.9, second-worst in the league behind the hapless Orlando Magic.

If anyone can save those reserves, it’s J. Crossover:

How did the Spurs get here?

The defending champion Spurs didn’t take the most direct path to their 55 wins.

It was a roller coaster season for San Antonio, with the early-season euphoria of champion status quickly turning sour by the end of December. The Spurs went 8-10 that month, securing the worst month in the Tim Duncan era.

Things started to look up in January, but then came crashing back down in February as the team finished its annual Rodeo Road Trip with a 4-5 record.

Injuries were an issue during 2015’s second month, with key rotation players Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter and Tony Parker all working their way back into game shape from various maladies during that time.

But what happened in March once those players, especially Leonard, Parker and Splitter, got healthy again?

Death. Well, for the rest of the league at least:

San Antonio is now surging into the playoffs with 21 wins in its last 25 games, with 19 (!!!) of those victories by at least 10 points or more.

The main highlight of the season was the development of Leonard, who averaged 16.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.3 steals on the year. Leonard is also the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and made the Warriors look like AAU players on April 5:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bma1zD8X3dw

Danny Green also became arguably the league’s best 3-and-D player, Duncan turned in another solid season at 38 years young and youngsters Cory Joseph and Aron Baynes emerged off San Antonio’s bench.

Who’s the Spurs’ X-Factor?

Patty Mills. The energetic backup point guard missed the first two months of the season with a shoulder injury, and his shot has been off since returning. His points per game are down from 10.2 to 6.9, his three-point field goal percentage has dipped from 42.5 to 34.1 and he has zero 20-point games this season, down from eight in 2013-14.

If his looks are falling from downtown, the Spurs’ second unit becomes that much more frightening. Manu Ginobili, Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw and Baynes are all above-average NBA role players, but the floor isn’t spaced as well when their point guard is ice-cold from downtown:

The Spurs’ backups will need to take advantage whenever they face the Clippers’ reserves, because San Antonio’s starters will have trouble consistently building leads against Los Angeles’ elite starting unit.

What happened in the season series?

The teams split the season series 2-2. Here’s a brief summary of each game:

Game 1 (Nov. 10): Spurs win 89-85

The Spurs took the defensive struggle in Los Angeles early in the season behind Leonard’s 26 points and 10 rebounds and a big 14-3 run to close the game. Key in this contest was San Antonio’s 24-4 edge in points off turnovers.

Game 2 (Dec. 22): Spurs win 125-118

In the midst of a very bleak part of their season, the Spurs were able to pull out a victory over the Clippers. Parker had 26 points and San Antonio shot a blistering 63.6 percent from the field.

Game 3 (Jan. 31): Clippers win 105-85

The Clippers simply looked like the better team on this night, outrebounding the Spurs 56-36 and gradually stretching out their lead throughout the contest. Blake Griffin led the way for Los Angeles with 31 points, 13 rebounds and five assists.

Game 4 (Feb. 19): Clippers win 119-115

This contest will be remembered by Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich’s implementation of the “Hack-a-Jordan” strategy on the Clippers’ center. Jordan made just 10-of-28 (35.7 percent) free throws, a shade below his 39.7 percent average for the season. However, the Spurs couldn’t take advantage, as Crawford and Jordan dropped in 26 points apiece and Paul dished out 16 assists.

Who will win?

On paper, the team’s rosters look like a dead heat. The Clippers have the better starting five and more players who could be considered superstars, while the Spurs easily have better depth.

However, in a close series like this, I think you have to look towards the men on the sidelines as a sort of tiebreaker. The Spurs have Popovich at the helm while the Clippers have Doc Rivers at head coach. If you know anything about how good NBA coaches are, you’ll know that Popovich has the decisive edge there.

I like Coach Pop to make the right adjustments against the Clippers to lead his team to victory, whether it’s using Hack-a-Jordan again, mixing up the defenders he places on Paul or just finding that unconventional five-man group that makes life difficult for Los Angeles.

It also doesn’t hurt that the Spurs have a clear advantage in playoff experience. San Antonio’s players have a combined 1141 postseason games under their belt, compared to 524 for the Clippers.

Prediction: Spurs in 6 (Spurs win Games 1, 3, 4 and 6)

Note: All statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com and accurate as of April 16 unless otherwise indicated.

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