By Charley Rosen, for NBA.com
Posted May 14 2012 12:17PM
These are not your father's L.A. Clippers. Elgin Baylor and his misbegotten wheelings and dealings are gone. Donald Sterling has been thankfully silent. And the Clips are fresh from winning their second playoff series in 36 years. But the team is far from being satisfied, believing that Chris Paul will lead them to a championship.
LAC's next obstacle is the more than formidable San Antonio Spurs, a squad that was mostly ignored in preseason prognostications. But the Spurs have sharpened and refurbished their roster on the run, and are out to recapture the rapture.
Because he's L.A.'s most reliable scorer, CP3 has to shoot first and pass later. High brush screens early in the shot-clock will force SA's bigs to play defense in their discomfort zones and provide enough space for Paul to launch his deadly springers. Should he be doubled in these situations then his accurate passwork and tricky handling will be decisive. If the leg injury he suffered two seasons ago has cost Paul at least a half-step, he still retains the quick hands on defense and mental acuity to keep Tony Parker from running wild.
• Blake Griffin must avoid being schooled by Tim Duncan, a difficult task. This means being alert when playing weakside defense, playing TD soft on wing isos and allowing him to shoot his vastly overrated bank shots, avoiding blind spins with the ball in the paint and making timely passes when the Spurs' defense converges on him.
• Look for a pair of bench-mates to supplant Griffin in defending TD. At 6-foot-8, Reggie Evans might be undersized but he's the most physical frontcourt defender in the NBA, and his heart is as big as a basketball. His rock-'em-sock-'em game is perfectly suited for the playoffs.
• Kenyon Martin is bigger and quicker than Evans, smoother than Griffin, and can hit his line-drive jumpers at a surprising rate. Look for K-Mart to get extended daylight at both power positions.
• With three different looks to throw at Duncan, the Clippers have a decent chance at marginalizing him.
• LA's other big, DeAndre Jordan, has to do more than run and jump. He has to play under control, clean the defensive glass and make precise defensive rotations.
• As the season progressed, Caron Butler has been much more active with the ball. While his defense remains mediocre, it's imperative that Butler bag his treys and also attack the rim.
• Randy Foye is a streaky shooter who must be consistent and must also cut down on his mistakes. However, since he is by no means a featured player, whatever Foye brings to the table is gravy.
• The Clippers' bench has been a huge part of their success. Complimenting the defensive prowess of Evans and Martin, Nick Young and Mo Williams are the primary (if often erratic) scorers on the second unit. If Young and/or Williams can be patient and productive, the Clippers will be tough to beat. At the other end of the game, however, one of these guys will have the unenviable task of guarding SA's own super-sub, Manu Ginobili. Indeed, their best defense against Ginobili will be to bang him around and make him sweat profusely when L.A. has the ball.
• The Clippers' ace-in-the-hole is the remarkable Eric Bledsoe. Strong, swift, determined, a decisive finisher who is also armed with a drastically improved jumper ... if Bledsoe can bring his A-game he could make the difference in the series.
• Because Griffin's unrefined but quick bullying tactics in the paint represent L.A.'s only low-post threat, the Clippers have to shoot the lights out. This will be even more necessary because San Antonio's collapsing defense will routinely force kick-out passes. Too bad that CP3 is the team's only accomplished passer.
• The Clippers also need much more ball- and player-movement on offense than they have shown in the past.
• Most importantly, they must control their defensive glass so they can run themselves into easy scores.
• This edition of the Spurs is much more effective on offense than on defense. Against Memphis, LA demonstrated quick-footed, coordinated rotations as well as busy hands on defense. More of the same is essential but, given SA's diversified offense, any mistake will be costly.
Because Jordan is L.A.'s only dominating shot-blocker, Parker must zip past Paul/Bledsoe and ring the bell with his usual trickery in the lane. TP must also survive the extra-hard interior fouls dispensed by the likes of Evans, K-Mart and Griffin. Parker can count on his own bigs to help control CP3, but, above all, Parker has to keep the Clippers defense from packing the middle by making his jumpers.
• During the season,Gregg Popovich took special pains to limit Duncan's playing time. As a result, TD showed the Utah Jazz the quick first-steps and the artful post-up play that characterized his younger days. Having his way with young Griffin is a given, as is holding his own vs. Martin. But Duncan and the Spurs will have to make special arrangements to deal with Evans' forceful fronting in defense of TD in the pivot. As for his own defense, Duncan's weakside help has always been more effective than his man-to-man efforts. Even so, he has the length, savvy, and the support of his teammates to be only minimally damaged by Blake's quick but mostly mindless bullying tactics. In addition, Duncan's defensive range should nullify Martin's outside game, while his huge advantage in size must prevent Evans from gobbling up offensive rebounds. Business as usual for Duncan should bankrupt the Clippers.
• Boris Diaw has the versatility to flummox whichever defenders he faces from the pivot to the arc.
• Danny Green has become a do-it-all performer under Coach Pop's demanding tutelage. His out-of-the-box athleticism should dominate Foye.
• Kawhi Leonard no longer plays like a rookie. His size, length, quickness, speed and perimeter shooting must trump his matchup with the veteran Butler.
• Despite being in the starting lineup, Diaw, Green and Leonard will each only play about half the game. That's because SA's bench is just as long and at least as productive as is L.A.'s.
• Ginobili, of course, is the most dynamic sub on either team. His endless hustle and tricky left-handed slants are sure to baffle Young, Williams or whoever plays opposite him. Like TD and TP, MG is a winner who will do whatever is necessary for the Spurs to come out on top.
• Tiago Splitter can bang, rebound, block shots and take up space in the middle. His bad hands and lack of any offensive moves make for an even matchup with Jordan.
• DeJaun Blair has the power and the willingness to go chest-to-chest with Griffin. Should Blair and Evans play opposite one another, seismographs will quiver from San Antonio to Los Angeles.
• Matt Bonner's accuracy from way-out-there will put inordinate pressure on L.A.'s defensive rotations (especially on their bigs). However, Bonner's good positional defense is compromised by his limited lateral movement so that a matchup against Griffin should be avoided.
• Gary Neal is an incredibly accurate 3-point shooter who thrives in the clutch. When he backs up Parker, Neal takes care of the ball and does a credible job of facilitating the offense, but long-range shooting remains his forte.
• In addition to the explosive Ginobili, Stephen Jackson gives the Spurs another dynamic point-maker off the bench. Better off the dribble than he once was, and still able to routinely stick treys, Pop even has Captain Jack playing earnest defense. Jackson can, and most likely will be a game-buster.
• SA's perpetual screens enable Parker to get to the middle when they must play halfcourt offense. And Parker is still one of the best open-field scorers in the game. But, given the Spurs extraordinary fire-power, concentrating a defense on containing Parker is extremely risky.
• In defense of Duncan, Jordan is too twitchy and impatient, K-Mart is too small, and Griffin is inept -- which leaves the ferocious defense of Evans as the only means by which Duncan can be hindered from dominating frontcourt play.
• During the regular season, the Spurs led the NBA by scoring 103.7 points per game (nearly six points higher than their closest rival), as well as in 3-point shooting with a remarkable accuracy rate of 39.3 percent. Their enormous firepower should overwhelm L.A.'s defense and force the Clippers' often stagnant offense to force too many shots just to keep up.
• On defense, the Spurs will overplay the middle on high screen/rolls, thereby forcing the ball sideline/baseline where help awaits. By cramping L.A.'s screen/roll game, the Clippers' halfcourt offense will be reduced to drives-and-kicks, and isos.
• The Spurs' core of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are championship-hardened and will exhibit extraordinary poise in the clutch.
1) In defending the low-post, Duncan has become adept at attacking entry passes. Will L.A.'s on-the-box players move to meet these incoming passes? Or will TD rack up tips and steals that will lead to run-out scores for SA?
2) Take note of the Spurs' incredibly productive underneath-out-of-bounds plays that usually produce open shots.
3) The series will undoubtedly turn on the battle of the benches. Can L.A.'s subs hope to match the dynamic offense of Ginobili and company?
4) Pop's in-game/between-game adjustments are superb. Can Vinny Del Negro and his staff win this apparently lopsided war of wits?
5) Since CP3 is seriously bothered by super-sized defenders, don't be surprised if long-armed, 6-foot-7 Leonard is sicced on him for short stretches.
Charley Rosen is a former pro basketball player and coach and author of 16 books on basketball.
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