With their 102-96 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night, the Los Angeles Clippers forced a Game 7 in their first-round NBA playoff series. As is tradition, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich brought his brevity to the podium to assess Thursday’s loss.
“Our execution at the offensive end was really poor,” Popovich said. “There’s no excuse for it. We should be embarrassed at the way we came out for a close-out game.”
San Antonio was outscored in the final quarter for just the second time this series, but perhaps more glaring — and startling — was how its starting unit was dismantled by Doc Rivers’s starting five.
The only thing that didn’t go according to plan Thursday for the Clippers was the injury to Glen “Big Baby” Davis in the fourth quarter. Davis, who has been a pillar for the team’s front-line rotation, was taken to the locker room in a wheelchair after reportedly suffering a sprained left ankle — a critical blow to Los Angeles’s already-thin bench.
Analysts have chronicled the Clippers’ haphazard rotations for months — and rightfully so — but it’s a particularly contrasting feature of this series that hasn’t manifested in the expected way. Resting starters late throughout the season and plugging in cogs who produce is something of a Spurs’ colloquialism: The Spurs does it better than any in the league, and essentially don’t care if the league fines them for doing it. San Antonio has led the league in average bench minutes seven times in the last decade, and hasn’t ranked outside the top 10 since 2004-05. In this series, they’ve annihilated the Clippers’ second unit, outscoring them 217-134, 96-32 in the last two games. This isn’t all that surprising: Rivers’s reserves play the fewest minutes of any in the league (15.3 per game) and rank in the bottom 10 in points (29.9), rebounds (10), assists (5.7) and field goal percentage (40.9 percent).
San Antonio’s bench production is slightly down from its season average, in terms of scoring. This is an area where the Spurs can — and need to — exploit what’s likely Los Angeles’s biggest flaw: an ineffective second unit.
While role players like Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills have stepped up at times throughout this series, Manu Ginobili — the quintessential Spurs role player — has been held in check. The Argentinean is averaging just one made three-point field goal per game, is shooting 34.2 percent from the floor and is playing to a plus-minus of minus-2.2 in 18.8 minutes per game; he played 14 minutes in Game 6, the fewest he’s played in the series.
Tim Duncan has continued his turn-back-the-clock play this series, and the Spurs are reaping the rewards: Heading into Game 6, San Antonio was plus-24 when he’s been on the court this series.
Thursday night, however, it didn’t really matter how superior the San Antonio rotation and marquee players were because the Clippers’ starting five continued to produce despite playing an inhuman amount of minutes.
Every Clippers starter — Chris Paul, JJ Redick, Matt Barnes, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan — is averaging more than 28 minutes per game. The Paul-Redick-Griffin-Jordan quartet is averaging 38.9 minutes per contest; San Antonio, for context, has just two players averaging more than 30 minutes per game in this series. Furthermore, the Clippers only have three bench players averaging more than 10 minutes per game — and one of them is Davis. You can only pull on your starters so long before they snap, and losing one of their biggest front-line contributors in Davis would be a devastating loss.
The Clippers successfully won a would-be close-out game on the road against the defending NBA champions, bringing Game 7 back to their home court. San Antonio should continue pressing their will on the Clippers’ second unit, and use their depth to finish off the series. If they don’t pillage the bench-to-bench matchup, San Antonio will watch Los Angeles head to the Western Conference semifinals.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.