The Spurs-Clippers series has been a story of stability for one team and 180-degree change for another.
San Antonio is doing to Los Angeles what it has done to the entire league since the halfway point of the regular season. The Spurs are 27-2 in their last 29 games (including 6-0 in the playoffs), with one loss coming when Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan all sat. Going into the playoffs, they had outscored their last 30 opponents by about 16 points per 100 possessions, nearly double the NBA’s best overall rate, behind a league-best offense and a surging defense playing at a top-five level.
So, yeah: More of the same for them.
The Clippers, meanwhile, have gone from a seven-game series against a team (Memphis) that attempted the third-fewest three-pointers in the league to an ongoing massacre against a Spurs team that nearly cracked 40 percent from deep in a poor-shooting lockout season and spaces the floor better than anyone. The Clippers showed real grit and improvement on defense in the first round against the Grizzlies. Their bench players, especially guard Eric Bledsoe and forwards Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans, made a huge difference defensively, and Blake Griffin flashed some pretty zippy rotations amid general up-and-down play.
But the court against the Grizzlies was cramped. The Clippers could go under high screens for Mike Conley and Rudy Gay. They could play off Tony Allen or Quincy Pondexter on the wing, allowing for more help inside. And though Grizzlies big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are beasts, there isn’t a huge amount of space between them in the offense. Los Angeles players didn’t have all that much distance to cover, or that many complex decisions to make, against a so-so Grizzlies offense.
That’s obviously changed against San Antonio. No Clippers have suffered as badly as the power forward/center combination of Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Griffin has improved defensively, but all season the Clippers looked a year away from being a major contender, mostly because two young big men are learning the complicated art of NBA defense — positioning, communication, etc. — on the fly. San Antonio has exposed them — their individual skills and their work as a tandem. The Clippers have lost the first two games by 33 points combined; in the 42 minutes that Griffin and Jordan have played together, the team is minus-34. There are other variables at play here in that number, including the fact that the Griffin/Jordan combination shares very little time with Bledsoe, who has been a plus/minus monster the entire playoffs. But if you’re searching for the CliffsNotes version of what’s going on in this series, that minus-34 number suffices.
Chris Paul knows it, too. Here’s a Tony Parker/Boris Diaw pick-and-roll from Thursday’s Game 2 in which Paul, exasperated at Jordan’s tendency to linger too long helping on Parker, practically shoves Jordan back in Diaw’s direction — just as the San Antonio forward sets up for an easy three-pointer:
This isn’t even one of those plays in which San Antonio forces a defense into choosing between unappealing defensive decisions. This is Jordan simply misreading a pick-and-roll coverage, not understanding where Paul is or that Parker is not a serious threat 25 feet from the hoop. Unfortunately, this is nothing new for the 23-year-old Jordan, who has regressed in the playoffs after making off-and-on strides as a defender in the post and in space this season.
Here’s another breakdown involving Jordan:
Here the Spurs force a series of those painful decisions once Ginobili gets into the foul-line area after a Duncan screen. Griffin decides it’s safe to help off Diaw on the right wing, and as Duncan begins his roll to the basket, Paul has to decide whether he can leave Parker in the corner to help on Duncan:
Without talking to the Clippers’ coaching staff, it’s impossible to know exactly how to distribute blame here. But Jordan doesn’t aid the cause by standing up straight on Ginobili’s pump fake and lingering a beat too long with Griffin and Ginobili’s man (Randy Foye) helping to keep the situation under control. Jordan probably needs to be more prepared to pivot back to Duncan faster, even if the Clippers’ scheme demands more attention here from Paul.
Griffin wasn’t much better individually, and his knee injury is clearly limiting him:
This is textbook matador defense; you can almost imagine a red cape in Griffin’s hand during the flourish at the end. Some help at the rim would be nice, but the Clippers’ other big man, Martin, is addressing Matt Bonner behind the three-point line, and few scrambling defenses are prepared to deal with a situation like this in an instant.
More telling, though, are the instances in which Griffin and Jordan failed together. Big-man defense is a two-man game. Front-line partners must gradually learn each other’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses, and how each responds to various in-game situations against specific types of players. They have to develop a language they can communicate to each other instantly. It takes time, and Griffin and Jordan understandably aren’t there yet as they complete their second season on the floor together. Every Clippers game this season featured a few possessions on which the two would rotate to the same person, leaving another man open, or botch a would-be switch or commit some other fatal error. Again: It happens to every team that doesn’t have a communicator such as Kevin Garnett, Tyson Chandler, Dwight Howard or Andrew Bogut to anchor a defense.
The Spurs test both opposing big men like few other teams. They run pick-and-rolls all over the floor, sometimes two or even three on the same possession, and the San Antonio big man not involved directly will do something to make himself an active threat away from the ball. For much of the series, the Clippers have actually done a decent job on Parker pick-and-rolls of forcing the Spurs’ point guard to pass to the big man not involved in the play. But that big man, often Diaw, has been prepared to do damage when left open. Diaw has hit open jumpers, and, more important, driven into open space to force second and third rotations until the Clippers’ defense finally breaks.
In any case: Watch Parker get an easy jumper after taking consecutive screens from Tiago Splitter and Duncan. (A side note: How interesting of coach Gregg Popovich to give the seldom-used Splitter/Duncan combination playing time in the first half and then start it in the second half. The two big men represent the Spurs’ best interior defensive combination, but Popovich has been reluctant to use them because neither has shooting range beyond 20 feet — and Splitter’s range doesn’t approach that distance. But they would be a valuable potential defense mechanism against the Lakers, should Los Angeles rally over the Thunder, and Popovich is showing that he is not afraid to use the pairing in a close playoff game. That’s right: The Spurs are still tinkering with rotation possibilities and killing the entire NBA.)
Back to the Parker jumper:
Again, this is a speedy play with lots of moving parts, one that demands rapid-fire perfection in response. The Griffin/Jordan duo doesn’t have rapid-fire perfection in its arsenal yet. Whatever the best defense is against this set, it does not involve this:
Griffin and Jordan are standing right next to each other, basically turning two defenders into one as Splitter trots free to the hoop. They work hard to recover, but the initial discombobulation is too much to overcome.
Here’s another play in which the Spurs overwhelm Griffin and Jordan:
There’s nothing egregiously bad here, just a defense that is doing too much scrambling without enough precision. Griffin again sticks around too long at the top on Parker, prompting Paul to gesture at him twice to start his retreat. And that delay is enough to sabotage the entire possession. Jordan and Griffin converge at high speed on Diaw, allowing the ground-bound Frenchman to wrong-foot both of them, get into the lane and find Duncan for an easy scoop shot.
If you want to look ahead to a potential Thunder-Spurs matchup, it would appear Oklahoma City is better equipped to handle San Antonio with some polish. Big men Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison are all fine defenders in their own ways, though Ibaka, uncomfortable at times in space and against pump fakes, will face as tough a non-Dirk Nowitzki test as he’s ever had. And playing two big men heavy minutes robs Oklahoma City of a potent weapon: small-ball lineups in which Kevin Durant plays the power forward. The Lakers had success in Game 2 playing off the Thunder’s less-threatening offensive players, including the big men, to clog up other action. Teams can’t do as much of that with Durant at power forward.
For what it’s worth–not all that much, given roster changes that have happened since–the Thunder were +19 in about 43 minutes in which they played with Durant at power forward against the Spurs this season, per these game flows. San Antonio took two of those three games and outscored the Thunder by 12 points per 100 possessions when Perkins and Ibaka shared the court, per NBA.com.
The Thunder have struggled badly against the Spurs on both ends of the floor over the last two seasons, and if we get this dream matchup in the Western Conference finals, Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks will have to find the right balance of offense, defense and size. Good luck.