The first-round matchup between the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs is still the only series in the NBA playoffs in which both teams have wins. But it looked a whole lot less competitive in Friday night's Game 3 at the AT&T Center.
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After topping the Clippers in an overtime thriller to even the series in Game 2, the Spurs returned home and completely dominated the visitors in a wire-to-wire 100-73 win. San Antonio led by double digits for the final 22:30 and held a vaunted Clippers offense to several season and franchise playoff lows. Kawhi Leonard, who received his Defensive Player of the Year trophy in a pregame ceremony, scored a career playoff-high 32 points to lead the defending champs.
The game started well for the Spurs, who scored 25 points in the opening 10 minutes behind a strong start from Leonard. However, that stretch was rare for a relatively low-scoring first half in which both teams struggled to make shots against defensive pressure. The Clippers had trouble scoring nearly across the board throughout the night, but the Spurs went for just 10 points from the 2:00 mark of the first quarter to the 3:30 mark of the second, turning a 25-13 advantage into a mere 35-31 lead at a time when they theoretically should have opened up a dominant first-half margin. The typical Spurs execution was not there, perhaps due to Tony Parker dealing with a litany of leg injuries that limited his movement to intermittent bursts.
Their fortunes changed soon after with a 10-2 run buoyed by Leonard, who served as the team's catalyst all night. The Clippers finished the quarter on a 5-0 mini-run to make the halftime score 46-38, but it was difficult to imagine them winning the game without reversing their offense fortunes.
That turnaround certainly did not occur in the third quarter. San Antonio took full control of the game with a 24-11 period, holding the Clippers to their lowest-scoring quarter of the season. On the other side, Leonard exploded for 13 points on his way to a career-high (playoff or otherwise) of 32 points (13-of-18 FG, topping the 29 he put up in Game 3 of last June's NBA Finals.
If anyone questioned Leonard's star profile prior to this game, they absolutely shouldn't following this result. The 2014 NBA Finals MVP became the franchise's unquestioned top player in the final few months of the season and has only established himself further early in this postseason. The mild-mannered 23-year-old is understandably known first as a defender, but his offense has progressed to the point where he can be the first option for one of the best attacks in the league. Leonard hit all manner of tough shots on Friday, from turnaround jumpers to drives to contested threes. His development is a testament to the Spurs' player development but primarily a mark of Leonard's ability and determination. Kawhi never should have fallen to the 15th pick of the 2011 draft, but no one predicted that he could make such large strides by the end of his fourth season. Few other Spurs stood out on Friday (only Danny Green and Boris Diaw joined Leonard in double figures), but the team got many contributions to shoot 52.6 percent from the field despite their first-half struggles.
The Clippers were just a tad worse. Only DeAndre Jordan (10 points on 5-of-6 FG) made at least half his shots among rotation players as Los Angeles shot 34.1 percent from the field. That mark and their 73 total points both registered as franchise playoff lows, although the Clippers admittedly do not have the most accomplished postseason history. The more notable fact is that the Clippers — second in points per game and first in points per possession in 2014-15 — scored their fewest points of the season in a downright horrendous display. They got seemingly just a handful of open shots all night, with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin finding few gaps in a defense they had succeeded against with some regularity in Games 1 and 2. I suppose it's a good thing that no stars played major minutes after two very competitive games to open the series, but the Spurs asked even less of their top guys in Game 3. Maybe we should just move on.
The only real silver lining for the Clippers is that things cannot possibly get worse. While it's absolutely not good news that they are able to lose by 27 points to the Spurs even in a worst-case scenario, the Clippers will return to the court for Sunday's Game 4 with confidence that they can acquit themselves far better than they did Friday. Whether that's enough to beat a great team with a consistently improving star remains to be seen.
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