San Antonio Spurs 116, Los Angeles Clippers 90: Beat down

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When you think about it, every game is a toss up. Heading into the San Antonio Spurs’ 116-90 win on Thursday night over the Los Angeles Clippers, the game couldn’t have felt more like a coin flip. The Clippers beat the Spurs in the team’s first two matchups of the season, one a blowout and the other a close contest. Los Angeles came into the game with a full roster for the first time this season, but hadn’t played in several days. The Spurs worked off their post-All-Star break rust on Tuesday night against the Sacramento Kings, but would be without starting small forward Kawhi Leonard.

As I said, a toss up.

48 minutes of game time later, and this was anything but a toss up. This was as thorough a beat down as the Spurs had laid on someone this season. This game was so lopsided that the five-man unit that played the most together against the Clippers was San Antonio’s garbage time group of Aron Baynes, DeJuan Blair, Nando De Colo, Stephen Jackson and Patty Mills.

So what happened? Why did the Spurs play so well against the Clippers, when things went the complete opposite way last time these two teams faced off at Staples Center?

It came down to two things for me, two things that over and over again are the areas where the Spurs can be vulnerable: turnovers and offensive rebounds.

The Clippers are the type of the that really makes you pay when you turn the ball over. It’s a popular cliché to throw out there, but it’s the truth. The Clippers are so athletic and finish so well around the rim that when they get out on the break and in space, they’re most likely going to turn those chances into points.

On Thursday night, the Spurs didn’t turn the ball over as much. Last time they were in L.A. to face the Clippers, the Spurs turned the ball over 20 times. Through the last 40 seconds of the third quarter on Thursday night, about the time Tony Parker checked out of the game for good, the Spurs had committed just 10 turnovers.

And in a conversation with the ClipperBlog guys after the game, they mentioned that even those turnovers that the Spurs had were rarely live ball giveaways where the Clippers could get out and run. Often they were forced to take the ball out of bounds where San Antonio was able to set up its defense.

The Spurs eventually finished with 17 turnovers thanks to the previously-mentioned garbage time group, which made a lot of bad passes to empty spaces.

The other area the Spurs were able to protect on Thursday night was offensive rebounding. San Antonio is seventh in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage this season, but gave away a game to the Clippers in San Antonio because they couldn’t protect the boards. On that night, the Spurs gave up 17 offensive rebounds to the bigger, longer and more athletic Clippers.

Through those last 40 seconds of the third quarter, the Spurs had allowed just six offensive boards to Los Angeles for just two second chance points.

By taking away transition opportunities and second chance points, the Spurs squeezed the Clippers into a half court game of basketball where, outside of Chris Paul, Los Angeles simply struggles to execute as well as San Antonio. The Spurs found the shots they wanted to early and knocked them down, while the Clippers were forced into tougher looks. To the Clippers credit, they hit many of those tougher shots early, but it was an unsustainable stretch of play that fell apart quickly.

The Spurs faced questions in how they matched up against the Los Angeles Clippers after San Antonio’s two previous defeats. The Clippers excel in areas where the Spurs as we’ve seen, but the tables turned on Thursday night at Staples Center. The Spurs executed brilliantly and erased much of the momentum Los Angeles had built up in those first two games.

Statistics and lineup data courtesy of NBA.com/Stats. I joined the ClipperBlog guys last night after the game for ClipperBlog Live, which I’ve embedded below if you care to watch.