Personally, I wanted the Grizzlies. Knowing how competitive the Spurs are and how much they hated last year's series against Memphis, I'm confident that San Antonio also wanted the Grizzlies. (In case you missed in, due to a bout of premature epostulation, I wrote out why I thought the Spurs would sweep the Grizzlies.)
With the Clippers digging deep and grinding out a Game 7 win in Memphis, we're now set for a Spurs versus Clippers second round matchup. While I still think the Spurs will beat the Clippers and advance to the 2012 Western Conference, I'm not nearly as confident that this will be an easy series.
As I continue to ponder my final prediction, here are the areas that are giving me reason to recalibrate my enthusiasm.
Against the Grizzlies, there was no way the Spurs were going to come out not ready to play. The Game 1 loss last year turned out to be the difference so there was no doubt in my mind that San Antonio would be ready to rumble from the first possession. But now against the Clippers, I'm not so sure. Everyone knows L.A. has three starters dealing with injuries in Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Caron Butler. The Spurs were surely watching as the Clippers looked underwhelming for a majority of the Memphis series. Add in the long layoff and I think a letdown early in the series is inevitable.
Steve Nash Redux
The last time the Spurs were in the second round, they faced off against a superstar point guard who was supposedly slowed by a hip injury. If you remember correctly, Steve Nash was an injury question mark back in 2010 when he was just 4-for-12 with 12 turnovers in the final two games of Phoenix's first round series against Portland. Thinking Nash was hobbled, the Spurs decided to try to let Nash beat them ... and Nash more than obliged. He exploded for 33 points on 13-for-19 shooting to go along with ten assists in the Game 1 victory for the Suns that set the stage for the sudden sweep. Fast forward to today and itís another superstar point guard that is dealing with a hip injury in Chris Paul. In the last three games of the Grizzlies series, Paul averaged only 16.3 points and five assists. I, for one, hope the Spurs don't tempt the existence of deja vu by daring Paul to beat them in Game 1. That didnít work out too well last time.
Small Guards Galore
Perhaps the biggest weakness of San Antonio's defense is the ability to defend small guards. Outside of Tony Parker, there's no one on the team who is above average at defending such players. More bluntly, everyone else is either bad or really bad at defending small guards. Unfortunately, the Clippers have four small guards who can play in Chris Paul, Eric Bledsoe, Mo Williams and Randy Foye. When Parker is on the bench, Gary Neal is going to be a major defensive liability no matter who he's defending. Manu Ginobili has done a much better job defending size than speed this season. In this series, Ginobili is going to be forced to defend smaller, quicker players who can score. If you've been following along this season, you know that's not a good thing.
Heading into the second round, the Clippers are about as battle tested as humanly possible. They climbed out of a huge deficit in Game 1. They won close, hard fought contests in Game 3 and Game 4. And following the disappointment of losing Game 6 at home, the Clippers showed an amazing amount of resiliency by bouncing back and winning Game 7 on the road. The Spurs, on the other hand, have had clear sailing for more than a month now. As good as San Antonio is right now, there's no way to classify this team as battle tested.
We know the Spurs had the NBA's most efficient offense, but the Clippers are elite in their own right. They were fourth in the league in offensive efficiency, averaging 108.5 points per 100 possessions. The Clippers were also the league's second least turnover-prone team Ė one spot ahead of San Antonio. If the Spurs get in a shootout with the Clippers, Los Angeles has enough firepower to put up a fight. In fact, that's exactly what happened the last time these two teams met. There was a shootout and the Clippers beat the Spurs in the AT&T Center by a final score of 120-108.
As much as Tim Duncan has turned back the clock this season, he's still 36-years-old and he's still a below average defender of the pick-and-roll on most nights. Against the Clippers, Duncan is going to be forced to defend against pick-and-roll sets more than 40 times per game. That won't be easy and it could wear him down as the series progresses. If Blake Griffin is limited due to injury, that will just mean even more pick-and-rolls for Duncan to defend.
The Spurs have had issues with opponents catching fire from long range. Look no further than the last time these two teams faced off when Mo Williams erupted for 33 points on 7-for-9 three-point shooting. Against the Jazz, the Spurs didn't have to worry about losing games due to poor perimeter defense. Against the Grizzlies, the Spurs could have again been confident that they'd win a jumpshooting contest. However, these Clippers have a gaggle of explosive shooters. From Mo Williams to Randy Foye to Nick Young to Chris Paul, L.A. has players who can beat you if your perimeter defense is lax.
These aren't your older brother's Spurs. These Spurs like to get out and run. Not only do the Spurs run for easy buckets, they run to create mismatches that they can then exploit in their early-offense sets. The bad news is that the Clippers are going to splash some cold water on that strategy. Not only are they the slowest paced team still alive in the playoffs, Paul is without question the game's best player at controlling the pace of games. In the regular season, the Clippers played at a pace of 91.8 possessions per game. To beat the Grizzlies, they dropped that number to under 90. The Spurs, conversely, averaged 95.1 possessions per game and they've played at the league's fastest pace so far in the playoffs. However, it's going to be next to impossible to speed up this series with Paul at the helm of the Clippers. And that's unfortunate because the Spurs have lost only one time since Feb. 22 in games that have had at least 95 possessions.
Against almost every team in the NBA, the Spurs have a decided advantage when it comes to depth; San Antonio rolls ten deep and there's nary a letdown when the bench unit is on the court. Keyword: Almost. The Clippers very well could be the only exception to that statement still alive in the championship race. They too have ten players who can contribute on a nightly basis. In Game 7 against the Grizzlies, their bench of Eric Bledsoe, Mo Williams, Nick Young, Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin basically won the game by playing remarkably well down the stretch. As good as San Antonio's bench is right now, it would be a tall order to ask them to duplicate what the Clippers bench did to eliminate Memphis. Since rest will be at a premium in this upcoming series, L.A.'s reserves are going to be even more important than usual. Expect ten on ten action -- which is something you almost never see in the playoffs.
There's a lot of talk about who the best closer is in the NBA. While there are a lot of great players in this league who step up in money time, I think Paul is the most dangerous all-around threat late in the game. He steps up under pressure and can beat you with a shot or a pass. The stats agree: in the clutch, Paul averaged more than 40 points and eight assists per 48 minutes. He was also far more productive in fourth quarters than any other quarter. In a close playoff game, he's not a guy you want to see on the opposing team, to say the least.