NBA 2nd Round Preview: San Antonio-LA Clippers

The San Antonio Spurs have been waiting and resting for their second-round series since dispensing with Utah in a four-game sweep. The Los Angeles Clippers finally joined the Spurs in the bracket this past Sunday when they won Game 7 in Memphis. The Spurs-Clippers will be the last of the second-round series to get underway tonight down in the shadows of the Riverwalk and the Alamo, and TheSportsNotebook previews the series…

Depth has been San Antonio’s calling card all year long and that remains the case in the playoffs. While Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are getting more court time than they did in the regular season, the fact remains that if you just look at the Spurs’ roster you will be underwhelmed, you’ll compare it to Clippers’ lineup that has Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and see an upset in the making. It could happen, but this neglects the obvious disparities that exist in the way these teams play together.

The disparity in togetherness is more about praising San Antonio than knocking Los Angeles. The Spurs are getting quality minutes from players like Stephen Jackson, Daniel Green, Boris Diaw and Kawhi Leonard. They have a center in Tiago Splitter, whose minutes have been cut in the playoffs as Duncan’s need for rest isn’t the same, but Splitter can rebound and block shots. Because the team is so deep, none of the players gets enough minutes to compile eye-popping stats, but San Antonio always has fresh legs to play defense, hit the boards and get quality shots. And a team that shot at least 48 percent in each of the first three games against Utah is clearly getting quality shots.

What Utah did do well in the first round, and what Los Angeles has to take note of, is rebound the ball. The Jazz won the battle of the boards three times in four games and San Antonio’s one win was by a single rebound. Utah’s smallest margin was six. Duncan’s numbers were down here in the road games, but the bigger issue is that Splitter or Boris Diaw down low needs to grab a few more off the bench. The flip side of this is that, while I generally don’t think a team should plan on shooting 50 percent or so from the floor in any game, much less than the playoffs, San Antonio turned in their good offensive performances in spite of Manu Ginobli, a very good pure outside shooter, not playing well the first three games. If you get an experienced team working the ball and their best shooter back into rhythm, another high-percentage series is very possible.

The bigger reason a high percentage shooting series is possible for the favorite is that Los Angeles spent six games playing defense that was substandard for the playoffs. Memphis consistently shot in the mid-40s. While that’s not lights-out, it suggests a defense that’s okay—good enough to win a first-round series, but not do any damage against the big boys. Furthermore, if San Antonio was beaten on the glass by Utah, Los Angeles was positively pummeled by Memphis, losing rebounding from Games 2 thru 6 by margins ranging from decisive to outrageous. Los Angeles turned the ball over too frequently, with four of seven games 16 or higher, which can feed a Spurs strength, that of taking care of the ball.

LA’s Game 7 win on Sunday was ugly, but for a road team in the playoffs it was finally the game where they did a lot of what needs to be done. They got quality bench minutes, they narrowly outrebounded Memphis and they held their opponent to 33 percent shooting. They need to take that one game and spread it out for an entire series against San Antonio.

San Antonio has a lot going for them—they have homecourt, they have rest, they have players with championship experience and that takes a lot to overcome in the playoffs. What the Clippers do have—something that most 5-seeds don’t (think Atlanta) is real star power. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, when hitting on all cylinders and can win you a big game. Which brings us to the biggest variable of all and that’s Griffin. Yes, he can win you a game when’s focused, both rebounding and scoring. So how many double-digit rebound games did he have in a seven-game series against Memphis? One. Compare that to Duncan who had two in a four-game set, one of which he came out early when the game was in hand. This single comparison tells you why San Antonio will win this series.

The Clippers deserve a lot of respect for winning a seventh game on the road. Chris Paul is an excellent point guard and his presence ensures that someone will keep offensive flow going at key moments. That, combined with the games that Griffin comes to play, means the underdog will steal at least one win and perhaps two. They are good enough, and as they showed Sunday, mentally tough enough to win on the road. But they’re also inconsistent enough to lose at home. That’s why I’m saying it’s the Spurs in six.