Kiki’s keys to the game: Spurs vs. Clippers

I admit it. When Manu Ginobili broke his left hand in the second week of the season, I thought San Antonio was finished. Done. Over. I should have known better.

The success the Spurs have enjoyed since drafting Tim Duncan with the No. 1 pick in 1997 doesn’t seem to have an expiration date. This team is too good. This franchise is too smart. So here they are again, right near the top of the Western Conference and going for their ninth straight win when they face the Clippers on Saturday at Staples Center.

If you haven’t been paying attention to the Spurs – and, as usual, they seem to be doing this under the radar – you probably think they’re an old team. After all, Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker have been around forever, right? Well, Duncan’s 35 and Ginobili’s 34. But otherwise, San Antonio’s gotten much younger, much more active and much deeper.

Gregg Popovich plays 10 guys every game and half of them are 27 or younger. The youngest is rookie Kawhi Leonard, who’s only 20. He’s really energized this team. He’s very athletic, he’s a good shooter, he’s got great basketball instincts and he shows no fear out there. I don’t remember Pop playing a rookie this much.

Then you have DeJuan Blair, 22, who is undersized at center but is a great rebounder and plays with a ton of energy. So does Danny Green, 24, another former second-round pick who also starts and plays with no fear.  The Spurs always seem to find these guys late in the first round or second round, guys who fit their system and know their roles.

Another thing that separates the Spurs from other organizations is their patience. They drafted Tiago Splitter in 2007 and waited three years for him to leave Europe. Then he struggled as a rookie. He didn’t want to get fouled because he wasn’t making free throws. But he’s making them now and playing with confidence. He’s coming into his own. He’s a big, athletic kid who’s only going to get better and better.

They were patient with Parker, too. I remember when he came into the league 10 years ago. He was 19 and didn’t know how to run an offense. He used to get into it with Pop on the sideline. But his game management has improved so much. He can still score, but he can also create for other people and do whatever the team needs him to do. He’s averaging nearly eight assists, a career high. Last game in Toronto he had 34 points and 14 assists. They can put the ball in his hands and know something good is  going to happen.

Ginobili’s back now, too, and that’s only going to make them better. The way he plays, he doesn’t take away from anyone else’s game. He only helps. It’s adding another All-Star talent, a rested All-Star, to a 21-9 team.

But the biggest and best news for the Spurs is Tim Duncan is Tim Duncan again. Last year he looked a little heavy and sluggish. I read he really trained hard and ate right during the lockout. He looks like he’s in tremendous shape. I know his numbers aren’t great, but that’s partly because Pop has done a great job of limiting his minutes. Duncan had five straight double-doubles during the road trip. If he’s fresh for the playoffs, I think they have a great chance to go far.

It’s funny. When you looked at Popovich last year, he didn’t look very happy. Kind of crabby, to be honest. But this team seems to have rejuvenated him. The young guys play with so much energy and the team plays the right way. He looks like he’s having a lot more fun.

You have to give Pop and the whole Spurs organization a lot of credit for creating the right culture in San Antonio. Discipline. Accountability. Teamwork. Execution on offense. Sound defensive principles. It’s a system that works because you have a star like Duncan who buys into it. That’s how they’ve won four championships.

It’s the kind of culture the Clippers, who have had only two winning seasons in the last three decades, are trying to create. They have a budding young superstar in Blake Griffin and a formidable nucleus. And to that they have added one, Chris Paul. He’s changed the culture. He really has. That’s why I think he’s the best point guard in the league.

It’s not just what Paul’s done on the court for the Clippers, who are third in the West at 20-9, right behind the Spurs and Thunder. It’s his attitude. They went 4-2 on the last road trip and he was upset about it. Usually, you’re pretty happy if you win half your road games. He’s not OK with losing, ever.

He’s also made the Clippers a destination. No way they get Kenyon Martin if Paul’s not here. Martin could have signed with just about anyone when he got back from China, but he wants to be with a winner. And he sees what the Clippers are building. Griffin is a workaholic and a great competitor. So is Paul. So is DeAndre Jordan. So is Caron Butler.

So Saturday’s matchup pits two teams with great cultures and great work ethics. That’s one of the cool things about it.

You also have the matchup of Duncan and Blake Griffin, who are totally different power forwards. You have Paul and Parker, who both like to penetrate and kick to open shooters. The Spurs are great at defending the 3 and they also have great shooters in Richard Jefferson and Matt Bonner and Gary Neal. Only the Magic have made more threes than the Spurs.

Both teams have All-Star caliber guys coming off their bench in Ginobili and Mo Williams. The Clippers want to get out and make it an up-and-down game, while the Spurs want to work it inside to Duncan and play more of an inside-out, halfcourt offense.

But the Spurs can run, too. And as we know now, they’re far from finished. If the Clippers want to win the game – and win the West – they’ll have to figure out a way past San Antonio.