In the midst of another strong start that's continued a some increased experimentation along the way, the 8-2 San Antonio Spurs welcomed the similarly streaking 7-2 Los Angeles Clippers to the AT&T Center on Monday night with their hearts set on payback for the 22-point pasting the Clips put on them two weeks back. Instead, the Clippers again walked away smiling after a 92-87 win keyed by Chris Paul (19 points, eight assists, one dunk, one dagger), Blake Griffin (16 points, 12 rebounds) and strong bench play that left the Spurs stewing in their own juices.
As you might expect, no Spur stewed more than famously mercurial coach Gregg Popovich, who entered his postgame press conference calm, collected and, apparently, absolutely disgusted with the way his team performed on Monday night. You can watch Pop's postgame presser here, but here's what he said:
"[The Clippers came out] aggressively and competed at a top level for 48 minutes, and we didn't match that. I think that of all of our games, this is in the 'soft' category. We never had five guys that competed hard enough to win the basketball game. The Clippers took it with their aggressiveness and toughness, both mentally and physically. And I thought for a portion of that game we were an embarrassment. So, you know, we've got to look at that, look at the film and make sure everybody understands that this is a game that has to be played with competitiveness for 48 minutes. And that's the bottom line."
Because Stone Cold said so, presumably.
The "embarrassment" probably stems from the 27-8 run that the Clippers ripped off over the course of 10 minutes and 10 seconds in the second quarter that helped turn the Spurs' 10-point first-quarter lead into a five-point halftime deficit. After giving up a game-changing 25-6 run in a loss to the New York Knicks last Thursday, San Antonio again disappeared for a pivotal stretch, missing 14 of 16 field goal attempts and turning the ball over seven times between the start of the second quarter and the 1:50 mark. On the other end, the Spurs allowed the Clippers to shoot 10-for-17 and seize control thanks to the second-unit activity of Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe, who finished the game with a combined 23 points, 14 rebounds, five steals and four assists.
In fact, if not for the continued strength of Tim Duncan (20 points, 14 rebounds, two blocks, although he did have trouble at times with the athletic defense of L.A.'s DeAndre Jordan) and a bit of late-game magic from reserve Matt Bonner (10 points in 11 fourth-quarter minutes after not getting off the bench in the first three frames), a Spurs team that shot just 35.4 percent for the game and often looked a step behind the onrushing Clippers might have gotten blown out by their fellow Western Conference contenders once again. With a long season ahead, that's the kind of thing that Pop just won't (and can't) tolerate — hence the tongue-lashing, which, as Matthew Tynan of Spurs blog Pounding the Rock noted, came out of Pop's mouth without a reporter's prompting. He'd clearly worked up to it.
Asked how much the team's competitiveness would be impacted by the loss of Stephen Jackson — who's expected to miss four to six weeks after suffering a non-displaced fracture to his right pinkie finger late in the first quarter on Monday — Popovich called the hard-nosed veteran swingman's absence "irrelevant," suggesting the Spurs have more than enough talent and toughness to win with whoever's on hand. That's probably true — their been-through-it-all veteran core of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili remains intact, and though it's tempting to get push the panic button after a tough loss, it's worth remembering that the Spurs have been about four points per 100 possessions better than their opponents on the season (the league's seventh-best net efficiency rating, according to NBA.com's stat tool) and that their three losses on the season have come to the Clippers and New York Knicks, who are, surprisingly enough, two of the NBA's four best teams right now. The sky's not exactly falling.
Not yet, anyway. Popovich knows the Spurs are about to shove off on an East Coast road trip that will them play six games in nine nights, kicking off with a trip to the TD Garden to face the Boston Celtics on Wednesday and wrapping at the AmericanAirlines Arena against the defending NBA champion Miami Heat on Nov. 29 (in the second game of a back-to-back, by the way). San Antonio's homecoming doesn't do them any favors, either, as they return to AT&T for a pair against the 8-2 Memphis Grizzlies and the Central Division-leading Milwaukee Bucks. The next two weeks are going to be rough, and this kind of public air-out could just be Pop's way of priming the team's pump for the hard road ahead. At this point, though, the Spurs' biggest issue may be more about lineup combinations than toughness.
Jackson's injury came during his second start in place of second-year small forward Kawhi Leonard, who was shelved with quadriceps tendinitis in his left knee last week and will miss the upcoming road trip. Leonard and Jackson have played the bulk of San Antonio's minutes at small forward this season — Leonard had been on the floor for about 60 percent of the Spurs' minutes before his injury, Jackson's played about 44 percent of San Antonio's minutes, and the two have only shared the floor for 46 minutes on the season, according to NBA.com's stat tool. With both of their big, rangy, tough-defending wings down for the next couple of weeks, San Antonio will likely spend a lot more time going small, relying on Ginobili and Danny Green for more minutes at the three while hoping that the combination of Patty Mills (118 minutes in 10 games), French rookie Nando De Colo (just 41 minutes in six games with five DNPs) and probably Cory Joseph (assigned to the D-League's Austin Toros last week after making just one four-second appearance this season, but who's now likely to be called back up, according to Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News) can fill in the blanks alongside Parker and Gary Neal in the backcourt.
That guard depth gives Popovich some options for tinkering, but with some big wings on the horizon — Boston's Paul Pierce, Indiana's Paul George, Toronto's DeMar DeRozan and Memphis' Rudy Gay chief among them, to say nothing of Miami's LeBron James, on whom Leonard and Jackson would both likely have seen significant time — defensive matchups could pose a big problem. Plus, throwing three guards out there most of the time probably won't do wonders for the Spurs' rebounding rate, which now stands at 21st among 30 NBA teams.
Still, if there's one coach in the league you'd trust to figure out how to make the best out of a tough situation, it'd probably be Gregg Popovich. His first play, it seems, is to publicly insult his team's fortitude. It's a bold strategy, Cotton; let's see if it pays off for him.
Hat-tip to Sekou Smith of NBA.com's Hang Time blog.