San Antonio 96, at L.A. Clippers 86 (San Antonio leads 3-0)
Offensive Ratings: San Antonio 106.4, L.A. Clippers 97.5
It took the Los Angeles Clippers 15 minutes to build a 24-point lead over the San Antonio Spurs Saturday. It took the Spurs essentially an identical amount of time to erase that deficit en route to a 10-point victory and a 3-0 lead in this series.
During the first quarter and early second, we saw the Clippers at their very best and the Spurs at their very worst. San Antonio made uncharacteristic mistakes, rushing the office and settling for tough shot attempts early in the clock. Everyone watching knew that wouldn't last for 48 minutes. That the Spurs would be able to come back with the relative ease they did, however, was remarkable.
By halftime, the difference on the scoreboard was just 10 points, and I looked forward to seeing what kind of intensity both sides would bring coming out of the locker room in what looked going in like the crucial stretch of the game. The Clippers scored two early buckets, extending their lead to 12. They would not score again for more than eight minutes as San Antonio ripped off a 24-0 run as dominant as any stretch of basketball you'll see at any level.
During that run, according to NBA.com/Stats, the Clippers missed 12 shots and turned the ball over twice. The Spurs shot 10-of-15 in that stretch, including a pair of threes, and had assists on nine of the 10 baskets. The ball movement, and the defensive attention the Clippers had to pay to Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker created wide-open looks for wings Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, who combined for 13 points in the run.
The surprise on the other side was that we never saw Eric Bledsoe during the run. Game 3 wasn't a particularly strong effort for Bledsoe, who had two points and two assists in 16 minutes, during which the Clippers were outscored by five points. It's understandable why Vinny Del Negro felt he needed to get more scoring on the floor, and Mo Williams did eventually shoot the Clippers out of the drought. Still, Bledsoe has been such a game-changer in this series and that stretch was so bad that he seemed worth a look.
We did get a glimpse of what this Clippers team could be during the first quarter. Blake Griffin was a force, interspersing all manner of turnarounds and post scores with his usual plays above the rim. Griffin had 20 points on 10-of-13 shooting and seven rebounds before halftime. He maintained his rebounding in the second half, coming up with nine boards, but the same shot attempts weren't falling. He was 3-of-11. DeAndre Jordan was nearly as important to the Clippers' solid start. He played some of the best team defense I've ever seen from him, controlling the paint and handling Duncan one-on-one in addition to contributing some timely scores.
At this stage of their careers, the young Clippers simply aren't capable of maintaining that level for 48 minutes. Jordan struggled after halftime and was quickly replaced by Kenyon Martin. The one veteran the Clippers can usually rely on, Chris Paul, clearly isn't 100 percent. He distributed the basketball more effectively than Game 2, handing out 11 assists with just three turnovers. However, Paul has been unable to shake loose of the bigger San Antonio defenders checking him. He missed 12 of his 17 shot attempts, most of them under heavy duress.
As the Clippers try to extend this series and their season Sunday, the back-to-back might be their best hope. Duncan had to play 38 minutes in Game 3 and might not be able to sustain his usual level of play. Parker also played 36. Otherwise, I'm not sure how many options Del Negro has at this point. He tried a small lineup in the second quarter only to see the Spurs get the better of that matchup. All of his choices next to Griffin are limited. Reggie Evans gave the Clippers some useful energy in the fourth quarter, but leaving him on the floor gave San Antonio the ability to intentionally foul to help stifle the L.A. comeback. Gregg Popovich is obviously a much better coach than Del Negro, but the way his players execute also helps make him look very good. Even when they start terribly.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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