We’ve already got a bang-up preview of the Spurs-Clippers series that begins tonight, and I’ve already given my quick-hitting prediction: Spurs in five. That prediction is based on the idea that the Clippers’ defense, merely average in the regular season, won’t be able to limit the Spurs’ league-best offense enough to win four times in seven tries. The Spurs lit up the Clippers in three regular-season games, scoring nearly 113 points per 100 possessions — about 4.5 points better than San Antonio’s overall mark — and shooting 44 percent from three-point range on nearly 25 attempts per game.
The Clippers struggled to defend the three all season, and their big men are shaky against the pick-and-roll — a deadly combination of flaws against a San Antonio team that, unlike the Grizzlies, does not offer a poor shooter or two off of which the Clippers can help.
That said, the Spurs’ status as big favorites here come with a few caveats:
• The Clippers scored 107.2 points per 100 possessions against the Spurs, a mark that would have nearly led the league, and they would have taken two of three meetings with San Antonio if not for a semi-miraculous Gary Neal game-tying three-pointer. The Spurs, surprisingly, ranked as one of the league’s worst teams at defending the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports. They ranked dead last in points allowed per possession on pick-and-rolls in which the ball-handler finished the play, and the Clippers have a pretty decent point guard–provided Chris Paul’s groin allows him to be something close to the usual Chris Paul. For the season, about 15.9 percent of San Antonio possessions ended via a pick-and-roll ball-handler finishing the play, the largest figure for any playoff team, per Synergy.
That probably says at least a little bit about how the Spurs prioritize defending various shot types over others, but it also suggests Paul could feast on open mid-range shots and driving lanes.
• The Clippers’ defense improved as the season went on and played well against the Grizzlies in the first round. That is partly due to a few bench players (Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin, Eric Bledsoe) combining for more minutes, but Blake Griffin’s rotations were also a bit zippier during some of the higher-leverage moments of the Memphis series.
• The Clippers’ other huge defensive weakness — a tendency to foul everything in sight — is not something the Spurs are especially good at exploiting. San Antonio ranked a bit below average in earning free throws, though we might see Evans knock Tony Parker beyond mid-court with a hip-check on a pick-and-roll at some point in this series.
• The Clippers have Griffin, and the Spurs only have two top-shelf post defenders — Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter — Gregg Popovich rarely plays at the same time. And that raises the most interesting question of this series, even if Griffin is also ailing due to a knee injury: Who guards Griffin?
And that in turn raises perhaps the most interesting question about these Spurs: As they advance deeper into the playoffs and face better competition, how much more will Popovich play his three stars — and how much more can they give?
To wit: I watched all 51 shots Griffin took against San Antonio this season, and whittled that down to 43 shots he took within the Clippers’ half-court offense. Duncan was the primary defender on just eight of those 43 attempts, with the bulk of anti-Griffin duty going to DeJuan Blair (18 shots against) and Matt Bonner (10). Both would appear overmatched against Griffin on the block, and Memphis famously bludgeoned the Spurs’ power forwards in last season’s playoffs. Popovich during the season gambled that he could keep Duncan mostly on the less threatening Clippers’ big men, including Jordan, while his power forwards at least contained Griffin with help from San Antonio’s guards and wings. Griffin averaged 22 points on 53 percent shooting against the Spurs.
Popovich will make that gamble again for large portions of this series; Duncan is not going to be Griffin’s full-time primary defender, especially with the stout Boris Diaw now working as the Spurs’ starting power forward. Diaw isn’t exactly an ace on defense, and quick post players — i.e., Griffin — can certainly give him issues with face-up moves and baseline spins. But he’s better equipped to defend Griffin than Blair, who allowed 50 percent shooting on post-up plays, is always reaching and lunging out of position and has fallen to the No. 5 spot in San Antonio’s big-man rotation.
The Spurs’ guards and small forwards are also very smart helpers. This year’s crop, with Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, is longer and more capable of mucking up passing lanes. The Spurs will help from unpredictable places at unpredictable times, and they’ll use fake stunts to confuse both Griffin and the players trying to enter the ball to him. And when Duncan is assigned to a shaky offensive player, as he will be for much of this series, he becomes an even better help defender; he will shift Griffin’s way before Griffin even begins a post move.
The Spurs actually ranked 12th overall in points allowed per possession on post-up plays, and Bonner’s direct matchups shot a borderline unthinkable 29 percent against him on the block, per Synergy. San Antonio, for all the real limitations it has at power forward on defense, has clearly done something right this season in the post — and that “something right” hasn’t involved simply burdening Duncan with every opponent’s No. 1 option.
The interesting thing to watch is if Popovich tilts that balance a little — if Duncan takes Griffin half the time in this series instead of just 20 percent of the time. Ditto for the minutes Duncan and Ginobili play. A banged-up Ginobili averaged 34.8 minutes per game in the playoffs last season after logging just 30.3 per game in the regular season. Duncan’s minutes jumped, but only by about two per game — from 28 in the regular season to 30 per game in the Spurs’ loss to Memphis.
The Spurs’ bench this season has been tremendous, and it’s deeper now than ever. But if they find themselves up against a Thunder team playing Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden 40 minutes apiece, how much wiggle room does Popovich have?
We may begin to find out a little in this series — if Griffin and the Clippers can force the issue.