Saturday, February 18, 2012
Tale of two contenders with issues
By J.A. Adande
LOS ANGELES -- It still takes some getting used to, looking at a Clippers game in terms of playoff implications after so many years of watching them melt down and then one season of tuning in for the Blake Show. Clippers versus Spurs is something we could actually see in the postseason. That puts even more weight on the two biggest concerns raised by the Spurs' 103-100 overtime victory Saturday: the Clippers' issues with their half-court offense and the Spurs' issues with keeping Manu Ginobili healthy.
As much as the Spurs have picked up the tempo the past couple of seasons, and even with Matt Bonner's admission that, "It seems like every time we slow down and start running sets things don't work out for us, which is the kind of opposite of how it's been," the Clippers still don't want to get into a possession-for-possession game with the Spurs. These Spurs don't lock down defensively the way past teams did, but the flip side is they will punish you at the other end if you don't capitalize on your good shots.
The Spurs score more and shoot a higher percentage than the Clippers, and over the course of Saturday's game they even held the advantage at point guard. Tony Parker has been given total run of the offense -- vive la liberté -- and he exercised it to hang 30 points and 10 assists on the Clippers. (It's amazing how far the offense has gone away from Tim Duncan. It's as if the Spurs tell him: "Go rebound and set screens. We'll pass to you when we feel like it.")
At one point Parker was plus-19 and Chris Paul was minus-23. Paul scored two points through the first three quarters, then poured in 17 points in the fourth to seemingly pull out another Clippers comeback victory ... until the Clippers tossed it back into the water with the worst inbounds play ever.
I say ever because it involved not one but two bad decisions: first by Ryan Gomes, for inbounding the ball to Paul as Paul's momentum was carrying him into the backcourt. Then by Paul, for not simply landing in the backcourt for the turnover, or flipping the ball over his head on the off chance one of his teammates would grab it or at worst give it to the Spurs 60 feet from the hoop. Instead he tossed the ball sideways, where San Antonio's Gary Neal played the role of James Worthy in the 1982 NCAA championship. Neal took the gift and drilled a game-tying 3-pointer.
Normally Paul doesn't turn the ball over.
"Me, of all people," he lamented after this one got away.
It stung the Clippers even more, because if Paul can't be successful, what other late options do they have?
Blake Griffin was dunking all over the Spurs in the first half, even in the half-court offense. So the Spurs mixed it up in the second half and sent a quick double-team at Griffin. Griffin hasn't learned how to evade it, or to create space with his body, so he clears out by dribbling away from the basket. That's mission accomplished for the Spurs. He scored only six of his 22 points in the second half.
At least he made a bigger impact than Ginobili. Ginobili was wincing and doubled over after Kenyon Martin laid a hard screen on him in the first half. I don't know if that was the play that gave Ginobili a strained left oblique muscle, or if it happened earlier, but I know Ginobili was in pain after that encounter.
Ginobili has dealt with some type of injury in each of the past four playoffs. His tires might be out of tread. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sounded as if Ginobili, who just missed 22 games with a broken hand, could be out for another long stretch.
Perhaps an absent or diminished Ginobili won't hurt as much as it would have in the past. The Spurs did just go 15-7 without him. He used to be the most critical player on the team. Now it's Parker. Still, Ginobili could be the difference between the Spurs reaching the conference finals or not.
With him, I like their chances. Without? Not so much.
Unless they face the Clippers in the second round.