The Los Angeles Clippers have just come off a gruelingly physical seven-game first-round series with the Memphis Grizzlies. They had one day off between Game 7 of that series and Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal matchup with the red hot San Antonio Spurs, and a lot of adjustments to make.
It turns out, it wasn't enough time.
The Grizzlies were the second worst team in the Western Conference playoffs in terms of offensive efficiency at 104 points per 100 possessions during the regular season. The Clippers' defense at times looked stifling against Memphis in the first round, especially in the fourth quarter. But the frequently anemic Grizzlies offense can make defenses look awfully good. It's a different story with the Spurs, who had the most efficient offense in the entire league at almost 111 points per 100 possessions during the regular season.
But the challenge for the Clippers isn't just that the Spurs offense is more potent than the Grizzlies -- it's also just so very different. The most obvious difference? The Spurs led the league in three-point percentage during the regular season at better than 39 percent. The Grizzlies were 26th in three-point percentage, and 28th in attempts. After a crazy Game 1 in which the Grizzlies made 11-16 threes, they made only 13 in the final six games of the first round combined. The Spurs made 13 in Game 1 alone Tuesday night.
Against Memphis, the Clippers packed the paint, cut off driving lanes for Mike Conley, double teamed Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the post, and generally dared the Grizzlies to beat them from the outside. The Memphis offense tends to devolve into a lot of isolation basketball, especially later in games, and the Clippers were able to overplay their tendencies with relative impunity.
San Antonio's offense, on the other hand, is unparalleled for movement, both of players and of the ball. And these guys are very skilled at every position. When the Clippers tried to trap Tony Parker on the pick and roll, he'd find Tim Duncan or Boris Diaw, both of whom can make the perfect next pass to beat the rotations. In the first quarter, the Spurs got multiple lay-ups this way.
And the Spurs can really shoot it. Once they get the defense rotating, their spacing is impeccable and their passing is precise, and invariably one of their shooters is going to get a good look. They made 7-11 threes in the first half, and were 11-16 midway through the third as they broke the game open. Seven different Spurs made threes during the game, with Kawhi Leonard leading the way, making all three of his.
The Spurs are also smart and experienced. The best player for the Clippers Tuesday night was second-year guard Eric Bledsoe, who came off the bench to tie his career high with 23 points and provide defensive energy. Bledsoe is a hyper-aggressive defender who loves to overplay passing lanes and deny entry passes, and in the first half he got a couple of his three steals doing exactly that. In the third quarter, when he went for the overplay, Manu Ginobili simply cut back door and Parker hit him with a perfect pass for a lay-up. Less experienced players, players who haven't been playing together for a decade, probably don't make that play. The beauty of the Spurs offense is that it is designed to take what the defense gives it, and the players are adept at making reads on the fly.
Of course the Clippers know all of this already. They know that the Spurs are a different offense, and a better offense, than the Grizzlies. They know that they need to do a better job of rotating and closing out the San Antonio shooters on the perimeter. It's all easier said than done.
It's a big transition from defending the bruising, plodding offense of the Grizzlies to suddenly trying to stop the highly choreographed ballet of the Spurs, and the Clippers struggled with that transition Tuesday night. Whether they were fatigued from the first round or simply didn't have enough time between series to make the adjustment is irrelevant. They need to figure it out quickly, or it will be too late.