Posted May 14 2012 9:43PM
No shock of San Antonio getting hit in the mouth with another No. 8 over a No. 1 upset to ruin the summer. No May surprise this time. Unless you consider running into the Clippers in the conference semifinals, which doesn't happen often.
Now that the Spurs are fresh off their 4-0 sweep of the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs, there is no denying that they are the team to beat in the Western Conference. All of the parts of the puzzle are fitting together. All of the cogs in the machine are running smooth.
The Spurs are riding a 14-game winning streak into the conference semifinals, their last loss coming on April 11 vs. the Lakers. They have won 27 of their last 29 games and are 42-7 since Jan. 30.
"We are optimistic," Manu Ginobili said. "We had a few great additions late in the season to make us even better. Our defense is slowly improving. I think Boris (Diaw) is doing a great job, Tiago (Splitter) too. Stephen Jackson is putting a lot of character in that defense, getting some big boards.
"I think we are a little better. But the league is so tough and anybody can beat another team. We've got to stay humble and think only on the next opponent. We can't be thinking now about the Finals, because it wouldn't help."
The Spurs assume nothing and take care of all of the details. Tony Parker continued what coach Gregg Popovich has called the finest of his 11 NBA seasons by leading the way in the rout of the Jazz. Tim Duncan looks like's managed to shave at least five off his clock and looked a lot quicker and livelier than 36-year-old in dominating whenever he wanted in the paint. Ginobili is still seeking his rhythm after missing 32 games during the regular season, but he nailed a trio of clutch 3-pointers that finished off Utah in the Game 4 clincher and seems to be getting closer.
But what has made San Antonio so effective and so difficult to beat all season has been the depth of the lineup that allows Popovich to often play 10 different players by the end of the first quarter and can get 11 or 12 deep, even in the playoffs.
"Our depth has been a hallmark of this team all season long and I don't see any reason at this point why we would look to change something that's been working," said Popovich.
The Clippers are coming off their first playoff series win since 2006 and only their second in the past 36 years. Not that they didn't make things interesting by letting a 3-1 lead over the Grizzlies go all the way down to a Game 7. Now they are looking for Chris Paul to take them further.
"Everyone knows it's obviously the playoffs," coach Vinny Del Negro said. "Chris is so good at not only making plays for himself, but making the right play, which is more important at times and getting his teammates involved. He understands the moment. He's picking his spots when he needs to be aggressive offensively and when he needs to run the team a little bit more and get the ball to certain guys that maybe have it going a little bit, whether it's Blake (Griffin) in the post or Mo (Williams) on a flare or Randy (Foye) or whoever. That's what makes him a star."
"I don't think it's taught," said Kenyon Martin, an opponent for many years and now a teammate. "You just have to have it."
Paul has it. The Clippers have Paul. That's why they'll always have a chance in the final minutes of a close game and now why they finally are a real playoff team.
Who wins the Chris Paul-Tony Parker showdown?
Far more of the burden is on Paul and yet he'll excel. But Parker will use all of his many teammates to come out on top.
He shot just 7-for-22 and scored 7, 4 and 6 points in the first three games against Utah. But he's contributing on the boards and with assists and is close to breaking out.
Who's on the spot for the Clippers?
Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Eric Bledsoe and Reggie Evans, if the spot happens to be the free throw line late in a game.
Who's made the Spurs even better in the playoffs?
Boris Diaw, the late season gift from Charlotte who now starts at center and is a perfect fit with his all-around skills.
How do you spell a Clippers' upset?
With two letters and a number: CP3
The Spurs want Tony Parker to push the ball up the floor in transition and break down opponents before they get set. Once they're in the half-court game, it's all about the pick-and-roll and Parker is becoming quite efficient at it. Gregg Popovich has done a transformation on offense that has turned the Spurs from starting each half-court possession with Tim Duncan in the low post to get Parker into the paint and then finding the open man when defenses collapse. The Spurs are as good as it gets to spacing the floor and having everyone in just the right spot to take advantage of open looks at the basket.
The Clippers will try to cut off penetration to the hoop with shot-blockers such as Griffin and Jordan. But that was Utah's plan in the first round, too, and those aggressive shot-blockers can be used and abused by head fakes.
Everything begins and ends with the ball in the hands of CP3 as he plays with it like a yoyo on the end of a string, goes anywhere and sets up just about anyone he wants on offense. With Paul running things in New Orleans in 2008, he kept a less talented Hornets team pushing the Spurs before they squeezed out a series win. For all the attention that is created by the "Lob City" hype with Griffin finishing Paul set-ups at the rim, one of the Clippers' other strengths is their 3-point shooting and that's how they topped the Spurs back on March 9 in San Antonio. On that night, the Clippers shot 14-for-27 on 3-pointers and Mo Williams nailed seven triples all by himself.
The Spurs will use a collective effort to stop up the middle against the off-the-charts-but-one-dimensional athleticism of Griffin. Nobody is better at scheming than Popovich. The other challenge will be to close out on L.A.'s crop of outside shooters -- Williams, Nick Young, Caron Butler -- who are much better than Utah.
It's happened mostly below the radar, but the leadership of the season has been taken over by Parker and he'll have the ball in his hands picking his spots when the games get late. He's got plenty of options with Duncan, Ginobili and a deep supporting cast. But this season, Parker is more apt to do it himself.
It's a simple goal, really, for the Clippers: Try to keep it close and then get Paul the ball to work his magic in the clutch. He has the best handle in the game, can get into the lane to finish or set up teammates and is the worst nightmare for any would-be defender.
There are X-factors lurking behind every bush in this Spurs lineup that is deeper and thicker than a rainforest. If it's not Danny Green or Gary Neal hitting jumpers, then rookie Kawhi Leonard is defending and rebounding. Tiago Splitter and Stephen Jackson bring energy off the bench in the middle and Matt Bonner brings a bucket of 3s.
Reggie Evans has managed to stick around in the league for such a long time because of his knack for getting on the inside of plays and under the skin of opponents. Somebody will have to give the Clippers a jolt of unexpected electricity to bring down the Spurs and Evans always has a full charge.
The Spurs took the series 2-1 and L.A.'s only win came when the Clippers rained down a torrent of 3-pointers. It's a coaching mismatch with Vinny Del Negro running into his mentor. Another one that's short and sweet with the Spurs winning 4-1.
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