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May 16, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
Starting Strong

by Kevin Pelton

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at San Antonio 108, L.A. Clippers 92 (San Antonio leads 1-0)
Pace: 92.6
Offensive Ratings: San Antonio 116.9, L.A. Clippers 99.1

The San Antonio Spurs' opening win may not have been as lopsided as the Oklahoma City Thunder's victory a night earlier, but the formula feels more sustainable. The Spurs really didn't appear to prey on a weary Los Angeles Clippers squad or have a major advantage in terms of game planning. They were simply the better team.

San Antonio did unveil a new scheme designed to keep Chris Paul out of the paint. On side pick-and-rolls, the Spurs forced Paul to the baseline and used both defenders to trap him, with a third defender coming in behind to pick up the big man rolling to the basket and the other two players zoning up on the weak side. The result was that Paul was a non-factor as a scorer, though the Clippers did a good job of working the basketball around the perimeter to exploit the vulnerable weak side.

After halftime, Vinny Del Negro and his staff made two adjustments. First, they gave Eric Bledsoe the basketball much of the fourth quarter, letting him use his quickness in pick-and-rolls to penetrate the paint with Paul posing a threat on the perimeter. Second, the Clippers moved their pick-and-rolls involving Paul to the top of the key rather than the side, keeping San Antonio from trapping. The Spurs still did a good job of crowding Paul, who was defended mostly by bigger wings--either Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard--and missed all seven shots after halftime, which may have been related to the groin injury he's battling.

The Clippers' larger issues were at the defensive end of the floor, where they struggled to keep up with San Antonio's pinball ball movement. During the third quarter, we saw the Spurs' offense at its best, with everyone willingly making the right pass and players knocking down open outside shots. They had nine assists on their 11 field goals in the period, which included four triples in eight attempts.

Del Negro did seem to find something during the fourth quarter by going uber-small. The Clippers played with just one big man--first Keyon Martin and later Blake Griffin--and put Nick Young at power forward with three guards. San Antonio countered with Leonard at the four flanking Tiago Splitter or Tim Duncan. I think the small lineup confers the Clippers several advantages.

On offense, it improves their floor spacing with an additional shooter. At the other end, the Spurs don't really improve their own shooting much by replacing either Matt Bonner or Boris Diaw with another wing. They also have fewer options as far as running pick-and-rolls, since the Clippers can switch anything that doesn't involve a big man. When Martin was in the game, the Clippers had their best pick-and-roll coverage all game. Lastly, the smaller, quicker group seemed to do a better job of closing out to shooters and forcing players like Green, Leonard and Gary Neal to put the ball on the floor, something they're not especially comfortable doing.

The other change the Clippers will presumably carry over to Game 2 is extending Bledsoe's minutes. At this point, the second-year guard might be their third-best player after Paul and Griffin. His aggressiveness is a difference-maker at both ends. Because he is so quick and strong, Bledsoe is the only Clipper guard who stands a chance of matching up with Manu Ginobili. At the other end, he gives L.A. a second playmaker as well as a different dimension in transition. Del Negro might not want to start Bledsoe because he works well with the second unit, but he can't spend so long on the bench at the start of each half, not with the Clippers' starting lineup getting outscored as it was Tuesday (by a collective nine points in 16:35 of action).

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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