Clippers find some solutions in win over Spurs
SAN ANTONIO – It would be easy to write off the Clippers' first win here in more than a decade – long before Blake Griffin was old enough to dunk – to a series of extraordinary circumstances.
Spurs dynamo Tony Parker did not play, nursing a strained quadriceps and sparing the Clippers a headache. Mo Williams did not miss, or so it seemed when he was sinking seven of nine 3-pointers. And Reggie Evans, a humble and earnest worker, grabbed nine more rebounds than future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan.
But to dismiss the Clippers' 120-108 victory as an acorn placed under the nostrils of a blind squirrel would be, well, let's just say they weren't in any mood to be placing an asterisk by it. They were too buoyant to call it a fluke.
"This was a long trip, we gave a couple games away and we're headed home, so we need that energy," said Caron Butler, who was heading home with his teammates after splitting the six games on their 10-day cross-country sojourn. "This is a great win."
It wasn't just the euphoria of snapping a 17-game losing streak in San Antonio or washing away the residue of back-to-back games they lost at the buzzer in Minneapolis and New Jersey that was talking. There was the feeling that the Clippers had figured out a few riddles that had been puzzling them.
Chris Paul was spectacular, with a season-high-tying 36 points, 11 assists and four steals, but what was noticeable was how less frequently the ball was in his hands on Friday night and as a result the offense hummed.
Williams, a point guard by nature and practice in his nine-year career, had the ball in his hands early in the game. So, too, did Butler, the seemingly forgotten third wheel in an offense that has revolved around Paul and Griffin.
"I'll be the first one to tell you, I don't like having the ball in my hands so much," said Paul, whose panicked pass allowed the Spurs to escape Los Angeles with an overtime win over the Clippers last month. "It's too easy to load up on me. The ball was snapping. Teams really couldn't just load up on us and guard us the same way."
This was something Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro spoke to the team about at their shootaround earlier, the first time in eight days that they had any sort of practice.
Instead, the ball – no matter whose hands it started in – moved crisply around the court and a small lineup, with Griffin often playing center and Evans defending the taller and long-limbed Duncan, spread the floor for Paul to operate from the wings instead of the top of the key, where the Clippers had become too pick-and-roll centric.
Williams, helped by his rhythm of those early touches, had a season-high 33 points and along with Paul carried the Clippers down the stretch. The Spurs had surged back from a 13-point deficit, but Williams snapped a tie at 103 with back-to-back 3-pointers, both coming on passes from Paul.
"I've been a point guard all my life," said Williams, who was forced reluctantly to the bench when the Clippers acquired Paul. "I need a rhythm. If I don't have a rhythm it might be a tough night for me. I try to get into a rhythm as quick as I can. If I don't handle the ball, try to do other things."
Butler, whose post-up and isolation skills had been features of his career – and the offenses with Miami, the Lakers, Washington and Dallas - had in recent weeks become a spot-up shooter. He had two points in the last two games. But early on, he got the ball in the post, and scored 10 of his 14 points in the first half, giving the Spurs another worry.
"Early on, we used to run it a lot, but we've gotten away from it," said Butler of the pick and rolls he ran with Williams, which got him the ball in the post. "Today we got back to it. Obviously, Chris and Blake are our superstars and Pat Riley used to always say, the ball is going to find the guys, the closers. Somehow, some way, we have to stay in a rhythm, we have to find a way to play off them and do things to take the pressure off those guys until they close the game."
The night began ominously for the Clippers, when DeAndre Jordan picked up two quick fouls. He picked up five fouls in 5:15, and as reporters entered the locker room quipped that "everybody who played is over there," nodding to the other side of the room.
That simply provided an opportunity for Evans, the journeyman who was signed as a free agent in January. He grabbed 13 rebounds in 27 minutes, both season-highs, and took only two shots, making one.
"Nothing's gonna change from what I gotta do," Evans said before grinning. "You know I'm not going to be shooting the ball. Just rebound the ball and play defense."
Never mind that the Spurs shot 48.7 percent, and scored 108 points, the Clippers defense was the best it has been since at least the win over Sacramento that opened the trip. The execution may not have been flawless, but it was hard to complain about the effort – especially early on. Paul harassed Gary Neal, something he acknowledged he might not have been able to do with Parker.
Then, a unit of three small guards, Williams, Paul and Eric Bledsoe, along with Evans and Bobby Simmons (who was awarded a second 10-day contract) stretched a two-point Clippers lead to 57-45, and allowed them to play from ahead for one of the few times since the All-Star break.
Now, they'll return home for much of the rest of the grueling month, the saving grace that they will at least spend most of it in their own beds. They do so appearing to have snapped out of a funk, one that had begun to eat away at their confidence.
And that may have been the most important part of their victory, a cue card for the season begins to grind on them again, when the offense bogs down and the defense looks lethargic. Remember the Alamo.