A No. 3 seed that won 56 regular season games isn’t usually fighting for their lives this early in the postseason, but that’s the situation the Los Angeles Clippers have found themselves in as they try to knock off the San Antonio Spurs in the best first round series of the 2015 playoffs. For the most part, the Spurs have been the Spurs, moving the ball with machine-like efficiency, defending at every spot in the rotation and exploiting even the tiniest holes in the Clippers armor. What has kept Los Angeles in the series has been the play of their two superstars, most notably Blake Griffin, who is playing the best basketball of his career.
Griffin didn’t have the luxury of growing up outside the public eye. He was supposed to be a fully formed basketball player at the age of 22, when the Clippers acquired Chris Paul, were anointed as “Lob City” and expected to contend for championships immediately. While Paul was able to almost double their win percentage in his first season in Los Angeles, his magic didn’t translate to the playoffs, where the holes in the games of Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were exposed by some of the best teams in the NBA.
A prime example of that was their first playoff run in 2011, when the Clippers outlasted the Memphis Grizzlies in a brutal seven-game slog before being swept out of the second round by the Spurs. Griffin had an overwhelming athletic edge on guys like Tiago Splitter and Boris Diaw, but it didn’t matter when San Antonio could control the tempo of the game and play sound positional defense in order to force him to score over the top of longer defenders in the half-court. The game was too fast for a young team that tried to beat the Spurs by playing 1-on-1.
Three years later, things have changed for the Clippers. Instead of Vinny Del Negro’s isolation-heavy offense, Doc Rivers has emphasized spreading the floor and moving the ball from side-to-side. When they are clicking, the LA offense looks a lot like the one they are going up against, with multiple pick-and-rolls and off-ball movement that flows freely into open shots. The key is Griffin, who keeps things moving at the top of the key, either by dribble hand-offs, hard cuts to the rim or pull-up jumpers when the defense sags off. It’s almost unfair what happens when the game slows down for one of the best athletes in the sport.
You can see it in his numbers. Griffin averaged 19 points, 7 rebounds and 2.5 assists a game on 50% shooting in the 2011 playoffs and he is averaging 24 points, 13 rebounds and 7 assists a game on 46% shooting in 2015. He makes decisions with the ball in his hands about as well as Paul, with a playoff assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.8:1 that a lot of guards would kill for. The Clippers essentially have two point guards on the floor the entire game except one doubles as a 6’9 250 power forward who can jump out of the gym.
Griffin put Aaron Baynes on a few posters in Game 1 but the real story of his offensive game is just how well-rounded he has become. This time around, the Spurs really have no one who can match up with Griffin. When they put a bigger guy on him, he can take them out to 20+ feet and kill them with the jumper or the drive. When they put a smaller guy on him, he can take him to the box, feel him on his back and get himself in a position to get an open look in the paint. Griffin got killed for years for being an athlete without much of a feel for the game, but that’s what you would expect to see for a young big man who could get by on his athleticism until he made it to the NBA.
Because he was so physically gifted and because he played with a veteran PG who could make his life easier for him right away, Griffin was expected to be something he was not early in his NBA career. While he made the All-Star team in each of his first five seasons in the league, very few young big men are like Tim Duncan and ready to compete for championships as soon as they are drafted. For most, it’s a more gradual process of going up against the best and coming up short, learning what they need to improve on and then working in the off-season to add different aspects of their game.
In an alternate universe where the Clippers don’t trade for Paul, a young core of Griffin, Jordan and Eric Bledsoe probably don’t make the playoffs for another few seasons and they do most of their growing away from the harsh lights of the postseason. The problem is they traded for Paul when the rest of their core wasn’t ready to win and he’s not the type of guy who can take a team on his back and carry them deep in the playoffs. You can point to his numbers all you want but history shows there’s only so much a 6’0 PG can do to beat the best teams in the world by himself. The only way Los Angeles was ever going to beat a juggernaut like San Antonio is if they got dominant play from their two young big men.
Even now, with Paul still in his prime and Griffin entering his, it still might not be enough. As most people predicted coming into this series, the Clippers have been undone by their woeful bench, which features two streaky perimeter scorers (Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers) an increasingly immobile big man (Glen Davis) and basically nothing else. Doc Rivers has had to stretch his starters to the breaking point just to get to a Game 7 and the waves of multi-dimensional shooters that the Spurs can bring off their bench means the Clippers starters have almost no margin for error.
The one area of his game that Griffin can still improve is his defense, as his incredibly short arms for a PF (6’11 wingspan) means he has to be positioned almost perfectly on every single play to hinder the San Antonio offense. His 4 blocks in Game 6 (a season-high) were absolutely huge - every possession matters in games this tightly contested and the Clippers get a huge edge anytime they can use their athleticism to get out and run in the open court. When Griffin has a head of steam and is pushing the ball, there is not a thing the Spurs can do to stop him.
That’s what it will come down to in Game 7. The Spurs have been doing this almost as long as some of the Clippers players have been alive - Griffin was seven years old when Popovich and Duncan were making their first run together in the playoffs. We know what San Antonio is going to do. The one thing they can’t control is how well the Clippers young big man plays. If he can crash the boards, dictate tempo and create open shots for himself or his teammates, the Spurs have to give up something. If LA is going to knock off the defending champions, it will be on the back of Blake Griffin.