LOS ANGELES — Monday was the first night of a road back-to-back for the Spurs and everyone knows what that means for Gregg Popovich — he’ll shut his stars down and conserve the fuel for the next night if he feels the game is getting out of hand.
The Clippers had their chances to make that a reality — San Antonio shot 5-of-22 in the first quarter and with Tiago Splitter out (at least another week with a calf injury) the Clippers were getting shots inside, primarily Blake Griffin who went to the rim hard all night.
San Antonio was 9-of-36 on uncontested shots. (Oddly, they shot 51.1 percent on the shots the Clippers contested.)
Yet the Clippers never pulled away. It was a six point game after one quarter, and while the lead got up to 10 at one point by the half it was just 42-39 Clippers. The Spurs just hung around and hung around.
Then they looked like champions starting with just 5:30 left in the game — the Spurs went on a 12-0 run to take the lead, Kawhi Leonard was a defensive beast on Chris Paul, and San Antonio made enough plays to pick up an 89-85 win.
“To me those are the best games,” said Matt Bonner, who started for the Spurs with Splitter out but didn’t help their three-point shooting, San Antonio was 2-of-19 from deep for the game. “I don’t want to say it’s ever easy to win, but it’s a lot easier to win when you’ve got 13, 14, 15 threes in a game. When you’re not making shots you have to find other ways, and tonight it was defense and just making gritty plays, especially down the stretch.”
“It’s tough,” Paul said after the game. “They basically gave us a clinic down the stretch on how to close out a game. The fought part about it was the turnovers. That was very uncharacteristic of us turning the ball over like we did, and they converted.”
Specifically, Kawhi Leonard had a big game. The Clippers have struggled to defend good wings all season and Leonard had 26 points (tying a career high) on 10-of-18 shooting. The Spurs aren’t usually a team that calls many specific plays, but with other guys being cold from the floor (Tony Parker 3-of-13, Bonner 2-of-10, Duncan 6-of-14) the Spurs leaned on Leonard, knowing Jamal Crawford can’t defend him.
“We ran more plans for (Leonard) tonight than I ever have in his career,” Popovich said. “That’s the plan. We’ve got to start giving him the ball. He’s the future. I don’t think Tim (Duncan) and Manu (Ginobili) are going to play any more than six or seven more years.”
That’s Popovich humor. He could afford to laugh. He thought his team played their best game of the season. They moved the ball and he thought their pick-and-roll defense was more consistent and the best they had played this season. They did everything, save for make shots.
That left the door open and the Clippers had a chance with 10 seconds left and down two. Paul drove and got a fairly clean look at a little four-foot runner.
“I missed,” Paul said. “It was a great play. I told Coach I wanted the ball, he drew it up, but I missed.”
Both of these teams have looked sloppy to start the season. With the Spurs, it has just looked like a championship hangover that we all just kind of overlook because we have seen them raise their level as the season has worn on for so many years.
With the Clippers, the questions — particularly about their defense — are a little more pressing. The Spurs get the benefit of the doubt because of their history, the Clippers do not and they have not seemed to build on what they had last year. At least not yet.
And they know this was a night to catch the Spurs on a bad shooting night, and they blew it. This was a rough loss for Los Angeles.