Here’s what happened last night: two completely forgettable games ran their course, and then the Spurs and the Clippers played one of the greatest first round games in the history of the NBA Playoffs.
A truly great game has no individual highlight that stands above the rest. Instead, each moment builds upon the previous. What’s left is a chain of events that could only have happened as a result of this game, these players, these coaches, this arena, this year, right at this moment. It was a night when a Blake Griffin signature dunk that would have lit up highlight reels was instead a quick two points, compared to the theatre of DeAndre Jordan’s many free throws, three hours of laser-concentrated rage from Chris Paul, a missed look from Redick on a game-tying three, a primal scream from Griffin into his jersey after two late-game turnovers, or Gregg Popovich slipping into the shadowy recesses of the Staples Center a micro-unit of time after the final buzzer rang.
This was not your usual Los Angeles Clipppers playoff game. This was a battle fought purely on basketball terms, without heightened attention on the usual string of B-plots and side beefs typical of past Clippers’ playoff series. It was, however, a typical Spurs playoff game in that everything that matters happened on the basketball court.
The San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers do not have a history for a reason: the Spurs have been a contender for two decades while the Clippers were the worst franchise in sports up until, you could argue, until last April. A four-game Conference Semi-Finals match-up a distant memory, a footnote to bigger things, and completely irrelevant now. Given the current quality of both teams and the cast of characters, though, this is a basketball war built on the basis of professional respect, flowing in both directions. Pop and Doc genuinely respect each other. Blake Griffin is dedicated to not under-estimate the player who he is trying to model his career after. The Spurs have launched one of the most dedicated efforts to stop one player in covering Chris Paul 94 feet for the vast majority of the game, having to rely on (newly-named Defensive Player of the Year!) Kawhi Leonard when that isn’t enough. Matt Barnes is even on his best behaviour, verbally and athletically.
Even after losing home court advantage, the Clippers are playing basketball with an urgency, focus and of a quality we have never seen before. There is a freedom to this season for a core group of players that have been together for four seasons that they have never had before. The reason: Donald Sterling, who is gone now. His dark soul vanquished from the Clippers and the NBA, now at a place where you can ignore his entire existence if that’s a thing you’re keen on doing. He’s been replaced by Steve Ballmer, an easily excitable software billionaire who is quirky, not creepy. He is guy who sits on the baseline with his family and has enough money where his body can contort and react to things without any inhibition and no one will ask him to stop.
So, with this new basketball independence, it’s all too perfect that they had to first take the old guard in the San Antonio Spurs.
This season, the never-stagnant-even-if-it-seems-that-way Spurs have further evolved: Tim Duncan and Leonard are easily the two most important cogs in Popovich’s relentless machine. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are footnotes, while Patty Mills and Danny Green were key defenders who failed to make shots in Game 1 but came up huge in a Game 2 victory. The passing is just as fluid as the offense is accustom, but they are attacking the Clippers more on the fast break. In half court sets choosing Duncan to orchestrate motion from the post compared to Tony Parker (who is definitely more injured than the Spurs are letting on) carving the lane to free space.
Prior to the game, Pop mentioned it wasn’t about adjustments, but hitting shots, getting back on defense not turning it over would be the key to the game. Tim Duncan followed these words exactly, putting in a timeless 28 points with 11 rebounds in a we’ve-been-planning-for-this-very-moment 44 minutes.
Watching the Spurs ride out that overtime win must have had Chris Paul frothing at the mouth. His legacy and someone’s opinion in a bar or on a blog doesn’t matter at this point. He has dragged mud through shit in playoffs previous, and this year he is going to run an elite offense for forty-plus minutes each game in hopes of achieving his greatest team triumph to date. Paul survived knee issues that jeopardized an elite career, two long years of Winning At Checkers With the NBA’s Vinny del Negro™ and the spectacularly casual racism of Donald Sterling, yet he is bringing it harder than he ever has in his ten-years as a pro. These Spurs took down elite offensive teams in last year’s playoffs — the Mavs (111.95 2013-14 ORtg), the Thunder (111.29 ORtg) and then the Heat (112.12 ORtg) — but the Clippers (113.21 ORtg) are a more elite offensive team than any of those. A player could never quell so many critics by winning a first round series, and Chris Paul knows to take no prisoners.
Right now, the Spurs are the ultimate test of Chris Paul, Blake Grifiin and the Clippers, forcing the defending champions to immediately defend their crown at the top of their game. Game 3 is on Friday night.