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May 15, 2012
Playoff Preview
San Antonio-L.A. Clippers

by Kevin Pelton

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If you believe in the meaning of playoff experience, this series is a mismatch. The San Antonio Spurs, who reached the postseason for the 15th consecutive year--a stretch that spans Tim Duncan's entire career--are bidding for their fifth championship during that period. By contrast, the Los Angeles Clippers' seven-game series win over the Memphis Grizzlies was just their second since moving to California and third in franchise history.

The arrival of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul has changed everything for the Clippers, though they were relatively minor factors in the Clippers' Game 7 win in Memphis. Led by their second unit with Griffin and Paul banged up, the Clippers won a deciding game on the road. Now, after one day between games, they face a San Antonio team that has been resting and waiting for a week.

WHEN SAN ANTONIO HAS THE BALL

Pace: 91.3 possessions per 48 minutes regular season (8th NBA), 90.6 playoffs (1st)
San Antonio Offensive Rating: 113.1 points per 100 possessions regular season (1st NBA), 113.4 playoffs (1st)
L.A. Clippers Defensive Rating: 107.2 points per 100 possessions regular season (18th NBA)

There will be little mystery to the Spurs offense in this series. The Clippers can expect a steady diet of Tony Parker, pick-and-rolls and shooters spacing the floor. Whether they can stop that is a different question. According to mySynergySports.com, the Clippers ranked 18th in the NBA during the regular season at defending pick-and-roll actions (including both the ballhandler and the roll man) and 25th against the kind of spot-up opportunities that will often be created by a third defender coming over to defend the pick-and-roll.

Neither of the Clippers' starting big men is particularly effective against the pick-and-roll, and defending in space is hardly reserve Reggie Evans' forte either. The best option for L.A., then, is heavy minutes in the middle for Kenyon Martin in this series. In the only game between the teams for which he was available, Martin played 29:30, his second-longest outing of the season. Martin is capable of both stepping out to defend the pick-and-roll and contending with Tim Duncan in the post.

The downside is that putting Martin at center next to Griffin leaves the Clippers short on length and shot blocking in the paint. They were able to overcome that with small lineups in the series against Memphis by clogging the paint, an option that is not realistic against the Spurs' fearsome shooters. San Antonio is also adept at focusing its pick-and-roll game on opponents' area of weakness. So look for them to attack Griffin by using either Boris Diaw or Matt Bonner as the screener, mostly to pop to the perimeter. With the lane open, Parker can attack off the dribble.

Parker was terrific in both games he played against the Clippers this season. (He missed the third, an L.A. win in San Antonio, with a strained right quadriceps.) In 71 minutes, he scored 44 points and handed out 19 assists, using just 38 shooting possessions. There may simply not be an effective answer for slowing down Parker from the Clippers' perspective.

Manu Ginobili, too, causes problems for L.A. because of his size. The Clippers rarely are able to put much height next to Paul in the backcourt, favoring players like Mo Williams and Eric Bledsoe who are point guards by trade, or combo guard Randy Foye. That gives the 6-6 Ginobili room to operate. He scored 20-plus points in each of his full outings against the Clippers (he left the third early after straining his oblique muscle), both times on 6-of-9 shooting. Though just 6-1, Bledsoe is an intriguing alternative against Ginobili because of his long arms and tenacity. Bledsoe's energy at both ends of the floor was a major difference-maker against the Grizzlies.

The Clippers did a good job defensively against Duncan this season, holding him to 42.5 percent shooting (17-of-40) in the three games. Their backup big men in particular are capable of defending the post, and DeAndre Jordan offers length to drape over Duncan, who figures to have a hard time scoring one-on-one. Given the other ways they can score, the Spurs may not need Duncan to be a big factor in this series offensively.

WHEN THE L.A. CLIPPERS HAVE THE BALL

Pace: 88.1 possessions per 48 minutes regular season (25th NBA)
L.A. Clippers Offensive Rating: 109.5 points per 100 possessions regular season (4th NBA)
San Antonio Defensive Rating: 104.8 points per 100 possessions regular season (11th NBA), 99.8 playoffs (2nd)

The matchups are much more favorable for the Clippers when they take possession of the basketball. That starts with San Antonio's surprising weakness: pick-and-roll defense. mySynergySports.com shows the Spurs allowing 0.9 points per pick-and-roll, which ranked 29th in the league. The Clippers averaged the same number of points per pick-and-roll on offense, making them fourth best. If Paul is near 100 percent, L.A. will put the ball in his hands time and again.

Paul averaged 22.3 points and 8.7 assists in the three games against San Antonio, and while his shooting percentage (42.9 percent) was nothing special, he attempted 21 free throws in those games, which is substantially better than the 5.0 attempts he averaged over the course of the regular season.

Paul's penetration also set up were spot-up opportunities. In general, the Spurs love to take away the three-point line and force opponents to play for les efficient midrange shots. They had the league's fifth-lowest rate of three attempts by opponents (21.0 percent of all shots). Over the three meetings between these teams, the Clippers--who shoot a lot of threes, but not an extreme amount--took nearly 30 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, and made them at a robust 39.7 percent clip.

Mo Williams led the charge, making 10 of his 16 three-point attempts and averaging 17.7 points against San Antonio, but perimeter role players Caron Butler (13.7) and Randy Foye (12.7) also scored double figures in three meetings.

Griffin will also get his points. Duncan is the only San Antonio big man who matches up particular well with Griffin, and as effective as Duncan remains as a team defender, he is challenged at times by the task of defending a pick-and-roll and recovering to battle in the post. Whether directly as the roll man, or indirectly leading to a post-up opportunity, the pick-and-roll will probably be the best way to get Griffin involved when the starting lineups are on the floor. Against any of the Spurs' reserves, Griffin should be able to go to work one-on-one in the post as long as the Clippers can space the floor and get the ball to him.

PREDICTION

The way games slow down and teams scout each other in the playoffs, high-scoring matchups are rare. On paper, this looks like one of them. Two top-four offenses match up against defenses that were much closer to the middle of the pack, and the strengths of the offensive attacks play neatly to the weaknesses of the defenses. How much either team can paper over those problem areas will be critical to this series. San Antonio has had more time to study the Clippers' pick-and-roll and try to adjust accordingly, though personnel may limit just how much Gregg Popovich and his coaching staff can do.

At both ends of the floor, the Spurs have the advantage on paper. To win this series, the Clippers will need to shoot extraordinarily well and hope they can do just enough on defense to slow San Antonio's own shooters. Doing that four times would be stunning. More realistically, the question is how far the Clippers can extend this series. I think they've got a shot to bring it home for Game Six, but the likely outcome is the Spurs finishing them off at home.

San Antonio in 5

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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