The Parker-Paul matchup that isn’t
Chris Paul and Tony Parker finished third and fifth in MVP voting. They share a position. One could make an argument that they were the league’s best two point guards this season.
Coming into this series, it will be fun to speculate whether Parker or Paul will win “the matchup”. “The winner of that matchup….so go the series…,” some will say. The problem, of course, is that matchup doesn’t exist—at least not in the hero ball sense. Paul vs. Parker is not a Hollywood boxing bout. It isn’t even a true blue Castillo-Corrales slug fest. It’s a paper tiger.
Within their program, the Spurs prefer to feature wings who can defend multiple positions. Bruce Bowen is the historic standard, but the Spurs regularly use Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, and Stephen Jackson to defend multiple positions. Ginobili might be deployed against 1s, 2s, and 3s; Jackson against 2s, 3s, and 4s. And so on. This doesn’t make the Spurs entirely unique, but it does point to one of the more intriguing matchups of the series: Danny Green vs. Chris Paul.
Chris Paul is unquestionably the most important player for either team in this series. Paul is better than any guard in the league and setting up his teammates and commanding the tempo. It’s not a stretch to say that to the extent the Spurs are able to frustrate Paul, they will frustrate the Clippers’ offense.
Danny Green’s length and, frankly, sheer willingness to stick his nose in the fray will make him Gregg Popovich’s likely choice to defend Paul. No one expects Green to bottle Paul, but, like Bowen before him, if Green can cut into Paul’s assist and FG% averages, the Spurs should win this series in a rout. If the Spurs are unsuccessful on that front, San Antonio is in for a fight against a Clippers team that has shown more postseason grit than any of us expected.
The supposed Parker-Paul matchup does come into play in relation to tempo. The Spurs like to push the ball up court and take advantage of early opportunities. If those opportunities don’t exist, the Spurs space the floor, work the ball side-to-side, and run through endless iterations of the high pick and roll. The reason this season was Tony Parker’s best-ever is that he effortlessly got the Spurs into their sets, and he is just as effective finding second, third, and fourth options as he is with the early opportunities.
Tony Parker is still, occasionally, a one man fastbreak. But this season he has found more running partners in players like Green and Leonard. One of the reasons the Spurs get into their sets so quickly is that players like Green and Leonard either leak out on the break or push the ball off their own rebounds. When this doesn’t happen, Parker masterfully shoulders the responsibility. The Spurs will push the ball all series, looking to get into the halfcourt as quickly as possible.
Chris Paul, conversely, will attempt to slow the game down, and thereby rob the Spurs of their rhythm. In a reversal of roles, the Spurs are the finesse team and the Clippers are eager for a slow, grinding series.
So don’t look too hard for a lot of Tony Parker vs. Chris Paul, man-up. You’ll be disappointed in the lack of fireworks. But do pay attention to the Spurs’ use of their wings on Paul, and, if you must evaluate this series in terms of a point guard showdown, pay close attention to the pace. The team whose point guard dictates the pace will win the series.