The San Antonio Spurs put the finishing touches on sweeping the Clippers this past weekend, running their playoff record to 8-0. Their playoff record is a close shadow to their overall record in the past few months, which has been about as dominant as anything we've seen in the last few decades. Since the Clippers and their fans got the last look at the Spurs freight train, I thought it best to check in on Steve Perrin of Clips Nation and get his thoughts on where he thinks this series is headed.
1. First, congratulations on a great season. Even though it stinks right now, the Clips have reason to bring hope for the future. What was your takeaway from this playoff run and how the Clips battled?
Thanks. I'm not really mourning the sweep at all -- maybe I should be. It was always pretty obvious to me that the Clippers would go as far as Chris Paul could carry them, and while we will never know exactly how limited he was, I don't think anyone would argue that his injury was a non-factor. Injuries are part of the game, it happens, it was bad timing and unfortunate -- but it helped to seal the Clippers' fate, there's no question about that.
Prior to the point that Paul was injured late in Game 5, the Clippers were 3-1 in the playoffs against a team that many placed in the "legitimate contender" category. From that point (bearing in mind that Blake Griffin was injured in the same game), they were 1-6. That's pretty telling. But rather than lament the six losses, I choose to celebrate the one win. A game seven road victory against a good team in the playoffs while your two best players are hurt? That was impressive.
The Clippers have a very nice core moving forward -- but all the same problems that they had all season are still there, like a lack of size in the backcourt, a lack of depth, and a complete absence of face up shooting from the bigs. They have a full off-season to address those issues this time as opposed to a couple weeks, but it's no small task to round out this roster around Paul and Griffin.
2. The Spurs beat the Clips by double digits in 3 out of 4 games. What does that tell us about the two teams, especially in light of the fact that Chris Paul was playing hurt? If Paul had been fully healthy, how might be outcome have been different?
As I said above, there's no question that Paul's injury adversely affected the Clippers, but a completely healthy Paul would not have altered the makeup of the Western Conference Finals. There was no way the Clippers were beating the Spurs in a seven game series -- not the way they're playing. I think the series goes 5 or even 6 games (probably not 7) with Paul (and Griffin) completely healthy, but the Spurs still move on.
3. What do you think are the Spurs' weak points? How can they be exploited?
In theory? San Antonio's bigs are rather plodding and there's not a ton of athleticism on the roster. According to Synergy Sports, the team was dead last in the league at defending the pick and roll during the season, which follows from the slowish bigs. But the reality of the Clippers-Spurs series tells a different story. The Clippers, a pick and roll team with perhaps the best pick and roll point guard in the league, were completely stymied. Some of that was due to Paul's limitations, but not all of it. It's worth noting that DeJuan Blair started 62 of 66 games during the regular season but played three garbage time minutes in the series with the Clippers. The Spurs are better defensively with Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter. One point that isn't made enough about the current run San Antonio's on is that with Diaw, they've only lost two games total -- and in one of those they sat the Big Three. The team as currently constituted, the one that you'll be seeing starting Sunday? Yeah, that team has won 95% of their games. I'm saying, the weak points are few.
The one thing the Thunder can do is get out and run, run, run. Exploit the gap in athleticism, try to wear out the 30-somethings. The Clippers, despite their own advantage in athleticism, played at a slow pace all season and were unprepared to run in the playoffs. The Thunder can and should push the pace at every opportunity.
4. What does a team need to take away from the Spurs' offensive system to have a chance to win?
Well, good luck with that. The beauty of the Spurs is that they are completely prepared to take what the defense gives them. Overplay the passing lanes? They'll beat you back door (as they did on two crucial possessions in the final minutes of Game 4 against the Clippers). Clog the lane to take away Parker's penetration? They'll kill you with three point shooting. Double team Duncan in the post? Don't make me laugh. The Spurs are like a cat playing with a mouse once they get you rotating.
Obviously OKC has the advantage of being able to stick Kendrick Perkins on Timmeh and eschew the double team, which is good. On the other hand, a weak side terror like Serge Ibaka, while terrific, is also vulnerable to being beaten by the Spurs ability and willingness to make the extra pass.
If I knew the best thing to take away from San Antonio, I probably wouldn't be writing a blog, I'd be coaching in the NBA. But of the various poisons to pick from, I'd say that against the Spurs, you have to do your utmost to play them straight up. They eat defensive gimmicks for breakfast. So, to the extent possible, stay home on shooters, fight through screens, stay in front of them, and don't double. That way, you'll just get killed by Tony Parker's penetration and not by everything else. I find it's slightly less painful that way.
5. Much is always made about the genius of Gregg Poppovich and the struggles of Vinny Del Negro. I personally think Scott Brooks is somewhere in between the two. How much do you think the coaching disparity came/comes into play?
To me the genius of Gregg Popovich isn't manifested during the course of the game. Popovich's special genius, the thing that sets him apart from any other coach in the league at present, is in his ability to get his players to buy in and commit to what he is saying, to what the Spurs are doing. Every coach in the league is going to tell his team during a timeout that execution is important, that the team that executes better in the final two minutes is going to win. Does Pop say something or do something in that huddle that makes his team execute better than any other team in the league? Nope, but that's what they do. Or take something as basic as spacing. Spacing for FSM's sake, how friggin' hard is that? Don't be too close to or too far away from that guy next to you. Stand there. Pop doesn't have two way radios with all his players, telling them where to stand (at least I don't think he does). And he doesn't somehow identify right brain players who just grok spatial relationships better (at least I don't think he does). And yet the Spurs will kill you -- murder you in cold blood -- with their spacing. Because Pop's players do what they are supposed to do.
Just be thankful that you don't have any level one targets for the hacking strategy (though Brooks may want to rethink his usual substitution pattern of having the 57% Nazr Mohammed in at the end of the first and third quarters, which are prime hacking opportunities in Pop's world). I'm not a fan of the strategy, not just because it's ugly and boring, but also because it's not particularly effective. The Spurs were going to win all four of the games in the Clippers series with or without intentionally fouling players (with the possible exception of Game 4, where an intentional foul on Reggie Evans was instrumental in the Spurs overcoming a fourth quarter deficit) so it's irksome to have to sit through that. The good news is that both Perkins and Ibaka, shooting in the mid-60s from the line, are just good enough to keep Pop from resorting to it (I think).
So it's not a question of whether Scott Brooks is going to be outcoached in this series: it's already happened. Sorry about that.
6. Does OKC have a shot to win this series? What is your predicted outcome?
Of course the Thunder have a shot. They have the two most talented players in the series, and the NBA is still mostly a talent driven league. Of course, the Clippers had the two most talented players in the series also (injuries aside) and look where that got them.
So I predict that the Spurs will win the series in 5 or 6 games. They're just playing out of their heads right now. The offense is surgical, and the defense is much better now than their regular season numbers would indicate. They also match up well with the Thunder, having individual defenders in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green who can at least make Durant and Westbrook work.
It's the Western Conference Final that we all deserve, and unless Chris Bosh gets healthy in the next couple of weeks, it's probably the NBA Final, since either of these teams will pretty handily beat any of the four remaining teams in the East. These are the two best teams in the NBA right now, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens. But the Spurs are in such a great groove right now, I just don't think they can be stopped.
Many thanks to Steve for his thoughtful answers. Be sure to visit his great site Clips Nation and spend some time hobnobbing with his community. If opportunity presents itself, we may check in with Steve again to get his take on how the series is unfolding.
Past Q&A's with Clips Nation: