The basketball gods always seem to bless us with at least one great first round series every year. While there are several intriguing first round matchups, none are more compelling than Los Angeles and San Antonio.
For at least the last month, the Clippers and the Spurs have arguably been the best two teams in the league. The Clippers, led by MVP candidate Chris Paul, have won 14 of their last 15 games, while the Spurs have won 11 of their last 12. San Antonio was the two seed entering the final night of the regular season, but after a loss to New Orleans, they dropped to the sixth seed.
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The Clippers’ starting five is among the best in the NBA, and they’ve been effective on both sides of the floor all because of Chris Paul. Paul is having one of his best seasons as a pro, and the Clippers kept winning despite Blake Griffin missing several games after the All-Star break. Offensively, everything runs through Paul. He gets shooters open, and J.J. Redick has certainly reaped the benefits of having Paul as his point guard. Paul is also still one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, which could be problematic for San Antonio if Tony Parker isn’t completely healthy.
Doc Rivers has led a fierce campaign for DeAndre Jordan to win Defensive Player of the Year. When Jordan, Paul, and Matt Barnes are on the floor together, the Clippers are an elite defensive team. Jordan is a dominant rim protector, and he can even make up for Rivers having to play Hedo Turkoglu at forward.
The problem with the Clippers all season has been the bench. Jamal Crawford still does plenty of Jamal Crawford things – one game he’ll have 30 points and won’t miss, and others he’ll be 1/14 from the field. There’s Turkoglu, who has been surprisingly competent in a limited role. Spencer Hawes has been a decent acquisition, but the Clips’ frontcourt has some serious issues if Turkoglu and Hawes are ever on the floor together. Austin Rivers was acquired via trade in the middle of the season, and the results have been mixed.
For most of the season, San Antonio looked disinterested. They weren’t moving the ball quite as well as they did last season, shots weren’t falling from the outside, and Tony Parker didn’t seem like Tony Parker anymore. The first two picked up in March, and although Parker has shown flashes that he can still be a dynamic player, he doesn’t look as explosive as he did a season ago.
Tim Duncan, on the other hand, still looks like he’s in his prime. He is still a great interior defender, and he’s mastered the ability to block shots without jumping. Duncan still commands a double team on the post, which is vital for San Antonio’s spacing on offense.
Along with Parker’s health, the Spurs’ title chances might hinge on the health of Tiago Splitter. When Duncan and Splitter have played together this year, they have been a deadly duo at the rim. DeAndre Jordan certainly isn’t a potent offensive threat, but Blake Griffin is, and San Antonio could really use Splitter’s defensive prowess in this series.
Of course, if Kawhi Leonard continues to be the NBA’s premiere lockdown defender, that can make up for quite a bit for the Spurs. Leonard can guard at least four positions, and if Chris Paul is terrorizing Parker, Manu Ginobili, or even Danny Green, expect to see Leonard checking Paul on defense. Also, Leonard’s offense has drastically improved. His tendency to go one-on-one sometimes gets in the way of the Spurs’ ball movement and spacing, but Leonard’s midrange game has been solid for most of the year.
The Spurs have two big advantages in this series. The first is their bench, and this one isn’t close. Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Cory Joseph, and even Aron Baynes could all play a major role in this series. Mills’ role could be the most important if Parker isn’t himself.
The other San Antonio advantage is the Gregg Popovich Factor. Everyone knows Popovich is the best coach in the NBA. Doc Rivers is also a great coach, and the two will have major strategic decision to make when it comes to DeAndre Jordan. Popovich has not been shy in the past about fouling Jordan throughout the game. Jordan is horrendous from the free throw line, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Pop employs the Hack-A-Jordan early and often. If Pop does send Jordan to the line as often as I expect and Jordan misses the majority of his free throws, what will Doc Rivers do in response? Does he bench Jordan and sacrifice his defensive ability? Or does he keep Jordan on the floor and hope he somehow has a great series from the free throw line? I’m not sure, but expect to see Hack-A-Jordan throughout this series.
If Los Angeles wins, it will be because Chris Paul has the best series of his career and he refuses to accept another early exit from the postseason. The Clippers also have home court, but if you’ve watched one of their home games this season, you’ve probably noticed that the crowd isn’t exactly threatening.
If San Antonio wins, it will be because they have the best coach, one of the greatest players of all-time, and they remain healthy throughout the entire series. They split the first two games in Los Angeles, and the Clippers have trouble defending the perimeter.
Whatever happens, it will be a treat to watch as a first round series. The winner has a realistic shot at winning an NBA title despite an extremely tough path to get there.