Most people assumed that the Western Conference Playoff teams were set at the beginning of the year. There could be some mild changes to the seeding, but the eight teams would be the same. However, with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s injuries and some mid-season lulls for several teams, the playoffs became a grab bag at the end of the season. Teams were flipping from fifth and sixth to second and third constantly over the last week of the season.
In the end, one of the most consistent, yet disliked teams, the Los Angeles Clippers took the third seed. Unfortunately for Chris Paul and Blake Griffin the team most thought would sneak into that slot didn’t, and they fell to sixth. That team is the ever dangerous San Antonio Spurs. The defending champs.
Key to the Series
- Get to the line. The Clippers are taking the fourth-most free throw attempts over the last month of the regular season with 26.1, however, the Spurs are fouling at the fifth-lowest rate, 17.6 per game. The Clippers can bully the Spurs inside with Griffin and Jordan. They’ll also be able to get into the paint with Paul’s ever-present driving ability. If they can get some Spurs in foul trouble, they’ll make their jobs much easier, but more importantly, the foul line is the single best spot to get points. If your name isn’t DeAndre Jordan of course.
- Make your free throws. If the first key is to work, the second key has to as well. The Clippers are the third-worst free throw shooting team in the league, making just 69.1% of their attempts. Much of this is on the broad shoulder of Jordan, he’s shooting just 36.7% on 7.5 attempts per game since March 15. That’s both the lowest percentage on the team by a healthy margin and the most attempts by a healthy margin.1
- Hack-a-Jordan. Sensing a theme? Pop is going to employ the off-ball bonus foul method in this series, it’s a foregone conclusion. Zach Lowe believes that this playoffs will be the one that brings the hacking strategies to the forefront of the rules committee’s aim. Regardless, if you can keep a team out of rhythm and have a 36% lately and 39% on the season shooter to the line, you’re going to do it. If it bites you, it bites you. But, the strategy is sound.
- Team defense. This team is too smart to go away from this, it’s their calling card after all. But, over the last month, the Spurs have the best defensive rating at 97.1 and the best net rating at 14.6.2 They have great individual performers in on-ball mavens Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, as well as the savvy positioning defense of Tim Duncan. The rotations are where this team shines and their close outs on three point shooters can’t be ignored. Leonard may be the best at this in the league. If they can keep everything within their system, they should have a good chance to shut down this high-powered Clippers offense.
DeAndre Jordan – See above. It’s not exciting, but it’s the truth. The exploits of Mr. Jordan will come to define this series, and possibly his next contract. I’ll be honest, he’s almost a lock for a max extension or outside offer this year, but if he shoots 35% from the line with 10+ attempts per game and sinks the offense for the Clippers, teams will think twice. He can still impact the game. Jordan may not be the best on-ball defender there’s ever been, but he is an elite athlete that can protect the rim from anywhere that he is stationed on the court. He can range from one side of the paint to the other before a shooter can get their shot up. IF he struggles at the line, he will have to be an elite rim defender for the Clips to have a shot.
I was certain the Spurs would sneak into #2 or #3 in the conference before the season ended. I’ve been preaching the gospel that is Pop and the Spurs all year. Don’t panic, they haven’t aged out yet. It feels lazy, it feels like I’m not doing enough analysis, I’m just “trusting” it will happen. But the numbers are there, the eye test is passed. They’re the Spurs we have come to expect. I’m not dogging the Clippers at all with this pick because they’re probably the third-best team in the West. But, when the #2, #3, #5, and #6 teams in the conference are all separated by one win, there are no upsets. The NBA is generally predictable in the first round, with higher seeds winning out. This is not that year because 2-6 are almost identical in full-season quality. Spurs take it though with the “upset.”
Spurs in 6