San Antonio 102, at L.A. Clippers 99 (San Antonio wins 4-0)
Offensive Ratings: San Antonio 116.9, L.A. Clippers 110.5
With the dying gasp of their 2011-12 season, the Los Angeles Clippers proved they could score enough to keep up with the San Antonio Spurs if Chris Paul was right and the team was at home. With Paul delivering a vintage performance (23 points on 19 shooting possessions, 11 assists and just two turnovers in 41 minutes), the Clippers had their best offensive performance of this series. They exploded for 28 points in the third quarter, when Paul either scored or assisted on nine of the team's 12 baskets.
And it still wasn't enough.
The Clippers actually found themselves in what has been a rather comfortable position this season--a close game entering the stretch run--and one San Antonio hadn't faced in more than a month. The last time the Spurs' regulars played a game decided by fewer than 10 points was April 4. Unsurprisingly, San Antonio remembered how to execute. Somewhat surprisingly, Paul was unable to carry the Clippers, who scored just once in their last four possessions--two Paul free throws with 52 seconds left--as the game hung in the balance.
Most attention will go to the Clippers' last two possessions, when Paul isolated against Danny Green in a 1-4 flat set with the other Clippers hanging around the baseline to give him as much space as possible. As Steve Kerr astutely noted on the TNT broadcast before the first play, coaches like the 1-4 set over pick-and-rolls late in games because they keep the defense from taking the ball out of the ballhandler's hands by trapping. The downside is that it's tougher to come up with a Plan B out of an isolation, even with as willing a passer as Paul at the controls.
Because of the way the Clippers spread the floor, San Antonio was able to crash multiple defenders into the paint when Paul drove. Tim Duncan's help blew up the first drive, when Paul was atypically caught in midair and threw the ball back out for a turnover. By the time he got in the paint, Paul had few good options, since the Spurs took away the pass out to the wings. The second time around, Paul was closer to making a play. This time Green deserves the credit for keeping contact and forcing Paul into a difficult fadeaway rather than a shot going toward the basket. Paul missed, and with no timeouts left, the Clippers never got up a desperation heave with 1.7 seconds left after Tony Parker split two free throws.
I think much of the postgame criticism of Del Negro falls into the realm of the unknown alternative. Del Negro could have done a better job of giving Paul more options by having one or two shooters float to the top of the key as he vacated it for a direct pitchout that would have spread out San Antonio's help defense, but scoring against a set San Antonio defense was always going to be a challenge, especially (as Zach Lowe noted) because Blake Griffin's free throw woes make him a poor option late in games. A timeout would have allowed the Clippers to get up a tying three-pointer by advancing the basketball, but it's not as if Del Negro ran out of timeouts early; he used all three discretionary timeouts in the last two minutes, including two in the last 30 seconds. (A more legitimate criticism is that Del Negro could have gotten more out of his after-timeout plays than the simple isolations and pick-and-rolls the Clippers called.)
On the other side, Gregg Popovich might just have swung the game by employing the intentional foul strategy against Reggie Evans with 4:34 to play and the Clippers (and specifically Eric Bledsoe) rolling offensively. Evans missed both shots, the Spurs tied the game with a three at the other end and Del Negro had to stop the game to get Evans out. Popovich is always looking for these small edges, and that effort paid off for his team in this series.
The threat of the intentional foul forced the Clippers to go small between the four-minute mark and the two-minute mark (they stayed that way the rest of the game, which is not uncommon), an example of the limitations of their personnel. The Clippers can't afford having so many big men share the same weakness. As valuable as Reggie Evans was against Memphis, his poor foul shooting made him a liability in this series. The lack of a true shooting guard also loomed large in this series, though Bledsoe emerged as an intriguing option. He delivered another brilliant effort in Game 4, scoring 17 points in 26 minutes on 8-of-10 shooting. In a league of the world's best athletes, Bledsoe's quickness stands out. At one point, he blew by the ultra-fast Tony Parker moving away from the ball for a backdoor cut. Bledsoe has a knack for getting where he wants with the basketball and is terrific defensively against bigger players. He's earned the right to be part of a three-guard rotation next season, possibly starting next to Paul, that would ideally be rounded out by a legit floor-spacing two-guard. (Where that leaves Mo Williams will be an intriguing question this summer.)
After the injury to Chauncey Billups, the second round was probably the ceiling on the Clippers' run, and they never quit on this series. They were simply too flawed to keep up with a team playing as well as San Antonio. So the Spurs will move on, getting some valuable rest before what looks like an inevitable Western Conference Finals clash with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Neil Olshey and the rest of the Clippers front office will plot their next move after returning to relevance.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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