In the closing minutes of Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals, the San Antonio Spurs found themselves in an unfamiliar position as they battled the Los Angeles Clippers: They were in a close game coming down to the wire. With their win, the Spurs completed their sweep of the Clippers, and have now won eight straight playoff games and 18 straight overall, but what's most amazing about the streak is that they hadn't really been challenged during it. Prior to Sunday night, it had been a month and a half since the Spurs had been involved in a one-possession game, or really any close game that mattered.
You might think that the Spurs would have been rusty, that they might not remember what to do with the game on the line, how to win a close one. But here's how the Spurs aren't like most other NBA teams: With the game on the line, they do exactly what they do in every other situation. They run their offense and get good shots.
A Danny Green three-pointer tied the score at 92 with a little more than four minutes remaining. In the final four minutes, the two teams were a contrast in approaches to crunch time.
Most NBA teams tend to give the ball to their best player in the final minutes of a close game; the Clippers are no exception, and most teams don't have a closer of the caliber of Chris Paul to use. On the Clippers' final eight possessions, Paul scored his team's final seven points -- a respectable number of points per possession in crunch time, it should be noted. He used seven of the team's eight possession to get there, going two for five from the field, turning the ball over once, and making three free throws. One other Clipper, Mo Williams, took a shot in the final four minutes, missing his attempt.
The two most important possessions, with 23 seconds remaining and the Clippers down one, and then with 10 seconds remaining and the Clippers down two, resulted in a turnover and a miss for Paul. As good as he is, the Spurs knew he would have the ball, and they swarmed him as he entered the lane. Even as he tried to find the open man, the Spurs' pressure was too intense and he couldn't make an accurate pass.
Meanwhile, the Spurs scored on four consecutive possessions to take control of the game, and they scored primarily because they got good looks. Tim Duncan found Manu Ginobili on a backdoor cut, he beat Blake Griffin in isolation, he found Tony Parker on a backdoor as well, and then Parker made a floater off of the pick and roll. Rather than getting locked into a particular set (isolation for Parker, for instance) the Spurs ran their sets and took what the Clippers defense gave them.
Those backdoor layups are of particular interest. With the game on the line, the Clippers' hyper-aggressive Eric Bledsoe was overplaying passing lanes. He was so intent on denying the ball to first Ginobili and then Parker, that he fell easy victim to a backdoor cut. Teams clearing out the side for their best player to go one-on-one simply don't get those sorts of easy baskets in crunch time, mainly because they're not smart enough to look for them.
The Spurs showed they could win a close game as well as win comfortably, and now they'll wait and rest for their next opponent. That will probably be Oklahoma City, as the Thunder currently enjoy a 3-1 lead over the Los Angeles Lakers with Game 5 in Oklahoma City Monday night. For most of the season, the Spurs and Thunder appeared to be the cream of the Western Conference, and now they'll likely meet to see who will go to the NBA Finals. As talented as the Thunder are, with the way the Spurs are playing right now and the way their offense is clicking throughout each game, it's hard to imagine anyone beating San Antonio.