Tony Parker had 31 points in 28 minutes of a blowout of Chris Paul and the Clippers.
LOS ANGELES -- Prior to Thursday night’s game, both Gregg Popovich and Vinny Del Negro conceded that a matchup against an elite intra-conference opponent is viewed through a different lens at this point in the season.
“Consciously and subconsciously, when you’re playing a team you think you’re going to run into in the playoffs, you probably focus a little bit more closely than if you’re playing a team you know you’re not going to see again until the following year,” Popovich said.
Suffice it to say, the Spurs focused closely and acutely. The victims found on the Staples Center floor were later identified as the Clippers after the 116-90 “ass-kicking,” in the words of Del Negro.
A few takeaways from the blowout:
The Black & Silver Machine
The Spurs set up shop at Staples Center in the game’s opening minutes, then the butchery began. San Antonio drained field goals on its first six possessions and never trailed for a second. The Spurs set themselves up for infinite options on each possession -- and they almost always chose the most advantageous one.
“It’s our system,” Tim Duncan said. “We find ways to score the ball. We use our motion and our pace.”
If the Clippers trapped high, the release came to the arc in the form of an open 3-point shooter. If help arrived from the baseline as Parker penetrated, a teammate zipped to the rim on a corner cut. If the Clippers stayed low to cut off that route, then Duncan floated out to 18-20 feet for a wide-open shot. That’s the key to the San Antonio offense -- availability. If that opportunity comes early, take it. If it doesn’t materialize right away, then exercise patience. Sounds axiomatic, but does any team grasp it so easily?
“They’ve seen all the coverages because they’ve been together for 10 years or whatever,” Del Negro said. “If you trap the pick-and-roll, if you force it down, if you jump out and show, they’ll have counters. They’re waiting to see how the defense reacts and they read off that.”
Tony Parker, wreaking havoc
Tony Parker, as we like to say, “should be part of the conversation” -- for best floor general, most indispensable to his team, best point guard off the ball. Except that Parker genuinely doesn’t care about the conversation. Teammates will tout him, as will Popovich, but it’s in deference and the spirit of brotherhood, not because Parker pays any mind to parlor games.
Here were Parker's numbers on Thursday: 31 points (12-for-16 from the floor; 7-for-7 from the line), seven assists, zero turnovers.
Here was the essence of the performance: Parker serves as the bookends of the Spurs’ system -- possessions start and, if necessary, finish with him at the controls. If he can beat the defense down the floor, he’ll look for a quick drag screen. But if the Spurs settle into their motion sets, Parker will generally dish the ball off to the wing, then buzz around the court like a lightning bug.
On Thursday night, it was the usual bag of tricks. Parker would swing clockwise around a single-single and emerge on the right side, with Chris Paul trailing the whole way. Parker collected the pass from the weak side, then immediately exploded off a pick from Tiago Splitter. Parker was simply too fast for a disoriented Clippers defense, dizzy from the motion and winded by multiple rotations.
And besides, where’s the help going to come from? The corners? The baseline? If the Clippers moved to help from these spots, the ball went to the cutters and shooters. If they didn’t move, Parker was at the rim in a blur.
Parker off the ball
As if his speed with the ball wasn’t enough of a headache for the Clippers, Parker caused trouble when he gave it up, too.
On consecutive possessions in the third quarter, Parker allowed teammates to make the play. Trapped in the left corner by Paul, Parker gave up the ball against pressure to Splitter, then didn’t wait an instant before cutting behind DeAndre Jordan to the basket where Splitter found him. Thirteen seconds later -- he left the ball for Manu Ginobili at the top of the floor, then made a UCLA cut (with a curly-Q tail) rubbing Paul off Boris Diaw, then catching a pass from Ginobili underneath.
“He’s really matured as a player,” Popovich said. “He used to be just a scoring point guard, and didn’t realize there was another whole world out there. Now he plays a complete game.”
The Clippers defensive regression
This was the fear headed into the season for Los Angeles -- that a surgical unit like the Spurs could render any progress the Clippers made defensively irrelevant once a graduate-level education was necessary on that end.
The Clippers’ big men spent the night in a spatial fog, not knowing when to jam ball screens, when to hedge and buy time for Paul and when to drop. Whatever the coverage, Parker moved into the lane effortlessly. When Griffin dropped back into the paint to deter penetration, that left Duncan unaccounted for at the top of the key where he drained face-up jumpers. When there was motion and the Clippers moved off the baseline to plug the middle, the Spurs sneaked beneath the defense.
“They back-cut us, got layups,” Del Negro said, enumerating the assortment of defensive transgressions committed by his team. “Staring at the ball on the weak side, staring at the ball on rebounds, no body contact on guys. On defense you have to play as a unit, talking, everybody is on a string, moving. Everyone has to know where they’re going. We had guys all the time not in the right spots not moving.”
It didn’t help that Paul was routinely behind Parker, which put those big guys in an impossible position. The Spurs simply force too many rotations for a team that’s too often slow to react. In the first two meetings -- both Clipper victories -- Los Angeles’ bigs were uber-aggressive, quick to the ball and, by and large, limited those rotations.
Not on Thursday.
“Speed, athleticism, big guys who can move,” Griffin said, listing his team’s strengths. “[Tonight] we tried to play a containment game, and that’s not going to work against Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and all them.”