When the first-round series of the 2015 NBA playoffs were set last week, everyone pointed to the matchup between the West's No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers and No. 6 San Antonio Spurs as the marquee event of the postseason's first few weeks. After only two games, it has not disappointed.
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The Spurs bounced back from a rough Game 1 to defeat the Clippers 111-107 in overtime in Wednesday night's Game 2 at Staples Center. The Tim Duncan-era Spurs are now 8-0 in Game 2 of the first round after losing Game 1 in the same the series. This particular Game 2 was a terrific, very intense contest that speaks to the high level of play in this series and which only built up our anticipation for the rest of it, starting with Friday's Game 3 in San Antonio.
This was a full 53 minutes of play, but let's start with the sequence that most people talked and will continue to talk about in the next few days. The Clippers led 94-92 with the ball after Matt Barnes intercepted a Marco Belinelli pass with 32 seconds left. A basket would give them a two-possession lead and put them in extremely good position to win. That's when everything went wrong. With the shot clock winding down, Blake Griffin dribbled toward the basket and fumbled the ball away to Boris Diaw. He found Patty Mills in transition to force a foul from Chris Paul at the basket:
Mills hit both free throws to tie it up. Paul got a tough look at the buzzer, but he could not finish over Duncan to avoid sending both teams to the extra period.
The Spurs closed things out in OT with superior execution. Mills continued his fine play with two buckets and four free throws in the final 11 seconds, while Duncan finished off one of his finest playoff performances in recent memory. The Clippers were in it until the last few possessions and missed an excellent chance to tie when J.J. Redick couldn't hit an open transition three with 13 seconds left, but the Spurs never trailed and seemed in control of overtime for the majority of the five minutes.
That's not to say that the Spurs obviously outplayed the Clippers in crunch time. In fact, a few different bounces easily could have changed the result and had us praising Los Angeles for its ability to wrest the win away from San Antonio when it looked headed for a likely loss.
The play of Duncan defined the night well before the result was decided. One game after struggling to find a consistent source of offense, the Spurs went to Duncan early and often as the venerable center (who turns 39 on Saturday) dominated in the early going. He affected the game with both his stats and presence, primarily by turning DeAndre Jordan into an on-ball defender in the post instead of the rim protector who frustrated the Spurs regularly in Game 1. Duncan's play helped the Spurs offense execute as a whole, although it didn't necessarily play out with made shots in the first half. However, the key is that San Antonio was getting better looks overall than it did in Game 1, and it figured to help the Spurs eventually even if they led only 52-47 at halftime.
Many of those shots started to fall in the second half at a time when the Spurs really needed them. Duncan's scoring tailed off after the first few minutes of the third quarter, which mattered because the Spurs did not get solid contributions from several familiar faces. While Kawhi Leonard was his customarily terrific self (23 points on 9-of-16 FG), Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili both struggled for the second straight game. Parker went 0-of-6 from the field for a single point in 30 minutes before leaving the game with 5:09 remaining in regulation with what the team later called tightness in his right Achilles tendon. Parker's status for Game 3 is as yet undecided, but his quality of play does not suggest the ability to contribute much regardless of his condition. Ginobili wasn't much better — he scored nine points on 2-of-6 shooting and fouled out in only 22 minutes on a questionable decision that caused him to slap himself in the head.
The Spurs built their lead to as many as 10 points at the 6:41 mark of the fourth, which caused the Clippers to call a timeout to attempt a comeback. Griffin found Jordan on an alley-oop on the next play to make the score 88-80, and a missed shot by Duncan appeared to give the hosts a chance to make it a real game. Yet that's exactly when Gregg Popovich decided to employ the Hack-a-DJ tactic and send Jordan to the line with off-ball fouls. He missed the first two and made just 5-of-16 in all up until the 2:00 threshold, but the move actually seemed to have a negative effect on the Spurs as a whole. For one thing, the Clippers grabbed several offensive rebounds off missed free throws to nullify the strategy's effectiveness. But the free throws also provided structure to the game and allowed Los Angeles to set its offense. So, although the Clippers generally struggled to score after that aforementioned timeout, they ended up going on a 12-2 run to tie the game at 90-90 on two Redick free throws with 2:02 on the clock. The Spurs couldn't hit shots, turned it over and saw Duncan begin to look extremely fatigued, especially on this weak attempt stonewalled by Jordan with 59 seconds remaining in regulation:
It was somewhat surprising, then, when Duncan recharged in time to score four big points in overtime. He gave his all in this one, playing a team-high 44 minutes and finishing with 28 points on 14-of-23 shooting, 11 rebounds, four assists, two steals and only one turnover. If not for him, Leonard and Mills (18 points on nine attempts in 19 minutes), the Spurs would have been in big trouble.
On the other hand, they also got plenty of breaks. Griffin's late turnover looms largest, but he did more than his part with a terrific first half to keep the Clippers close and an eventual triple-double (29 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists) on a night when Paul was solid but not spectacular (21 points, eight rebounds, seven assists). There were other potential goats — Matt Barnes also missed three of four free throws and two layups over less than a minute when the Clippers were still trying to tie the game, Redick missed a technical free throw and a few open shots, etc. The Clippers battled to get back in but could very easily have gone on a bigger run. They will surely feel as if they missed some opportunities.
The end result is that this is the only first-round series tied at 1-1, which feels fitting. These teams have played well enough to re-establish their status as title contenders, and it's very easy to imagine several more games like this one over the final five (or fewer, we suppose) of the series. As in Game 2, the upper hand could shift from team to team depending on who hits the tough shots or which unlikely heroes step up. It's intensely competitive, well played and essentially everything we all hoped it would be.
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