NBA Playoffs, Clippers-Spurs: The Battle Of The Frontcourt

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February 18, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan (21) moves to the basket against Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

This series has the potential to be the best in the first round of the 2015 NBA playoffs all together. And whilst there’s star players on the perimeter, a lot of this contest will be decided by the battle in the paint. It’s a perfect match-up between the beloved veterans of San Antonio and the athletic freaks that reside in L.A.

The primary backup bigs for the Clippers (Glen Davis and Spencer Hawes) haven’t exactly been great this year. Especially when Hawes is mainly around to space the floor and his three-point percentage has dropped by more than 13 percent since last season. That being said, their minutes aren’t going to be too high in the playoffs, so this contest still relies on the play of the starters.

Regardless of bench weakness, the frontcourt showdown in this series is a star studded one to say the least. With Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan on one side, and Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter (who’s not at 100 percent health right now) on the other.

Splitter may be somewhat of a C-list celebrity in an otherwise Hollywood affair, but what Duncan continues to do at just under 39 years of age is unprecedented. He was able to play in 77 games this year which is an impressive feat by itself, and he still possesses his infamous artistry in the post as well as averaging 1.9 blocks on the defensive end as well.

Duncan has used his knowledge of the game and impeccable footwork to make players 10 years younger than him feel completely outmatched. He’s still shooting 71.4 percent from within three feet of the basket. Which, considering the fact Duncan isn’t exactly an amazing athlete, says an awful lot about how well his talents as a post-up player have transitioned so effortlessly to the latter part of his career.

There aren’t many players approaching their 40th birthday who even come close to what Timmy can do.

However, whilst the Clippers’ backup big men leave a lot to be desired at times, their starting frontcourt duo have performed very well this year against the defending champions. So well, in fact, that both Griffin and Jordan have raised their already impressive season averages in their games against the Spurs. And when they still have the joy of being young, well conditioned and having all kinds of athleticism at their disposal, they can both step up and play at least 36 minutes a night in this series.

So regardless of the Spurs’ depth, this should be a major cause for concern for San Antonio’s chances in the paint.

Dec 22, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin (32) shoots the ball over San Antonio Spurs power forward Boris Diaw (33) during the second half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

This season, the Clippers and Spurs’ regular season series (full review here) has leveled out at 2-2, with L.A. earning the last two wins. Griffin has only played in three as a result of missing one game due to his elbow surgery, but his elevated performance is still important to note with the playoffs beginning in a matter of hours.

Against the Spurs this year, Griffin has averaged 9.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 25.3 points on 53.4 percent shooting. All those numbers are higher than his averages for the rest of the season, and his rebounding increase of 2.3 is especially promising for Clippers’ fans. Particularly when Jordan bullies Spurs’ bigs even more than he does others as well.

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DeAndre has been exceptionally fearsome against San Antonio this season, recording 15.3 rebounds and 2.75 blocks a game.

Simply put, no one can stop him rebounding.

Duncan could quite well average 10 boards a game this series, but Jordan will be the one hauling in 15 and corralling countless offensive rebounds for easy put-backs.

There’s just no way he can be stopped under the basket. His explosiveness will easily elevate him above Duncan on countless box out attempts, and when Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner come in off the bench (who both average less than 6.3 rebounds per 36 minutes) Jordan is going to be even more troublesome for Popovich to deal with.

The Spurs have struggled to contain Jordan’s athleticism in other areas as well. On simple pick-and-rolls that lead to easy alley-oops from Chris Paul, the Spurs have no such big man to compete with him.

Oh, and the same applies to Griffin.

He may of had a weak shooting night from the charity stripe (just pointing out the obvious, this is hack-a-Jordan, after all) but DeAndre’s 26 points and 18 rebounds when the Clippers beat the Spurs 119-115 on February 19th show just how much of a physical mismatch he is.

In terms of rebounding, the obvious edge goes to the Clippers. In the post, both teams are relatively even matched, with Griffin and Duncan being the two players with the ability to operate down low in comparison to their fellow bigs (who — for both teams — either stretch the floor or rebound).

Duncan may not be used as frequently as a scoring option by the Spurs anymore (his field goal attempts per game are down 3.5 from two years ago) but he can still be a threat. His post-up play is still efficient (he makes 56.8 percent of his hook shots) and his jump shot (shooting 45.4 percent from 3-10 feet) pulls Jordan away from the rim, where he is by no means as comfortable as a defender.

The Big Fundamental aside, though, Blake will be able to fight back with a vengeance.

If Duncan is assigned to limiting Jordan from having as many easy dunks as possible — and if Splitter is going to receive less minutes due to health issues — that means the Spurs’ next main big, Boris Diaw, is going to be challegned with the task of guarding Blake. Which, as we saw when the Clippers beat the Spurs 105-85, did not go well for Boris.

Diaw has allowed opponents to shoot a very generous 56.9 percent at the rim this year, and the sheer strength and athleticism of Griffin down-low proved far too much for him to handle. In this game alone, Blake exploded for 31 points and 13 rebounds, and constantly outmatched Diaw with his jump-hook and finishing ability when rolling to the basket. Splitter is hardly any better either, letting opponents shoot exactly 50 percent under the basket.

So with Griffin being able to score in a multitude ways and finishing the year by making 71.5 percent of his shots within three feet, the Spurs frontcourt should be nervous to say the least.

This is a match-up that the Clippers can abuse. And with Kawhi Leonard causing nightmares on the perimeter, it’s best that L.A. utilise Griffin’s scoring ability inside as much as possible.

And it’s not that the Spurs are old and untalented — because they’re still defending champions — but they can’t match Griffin’s speed and ball handling in transition, either.

Or, to switch up their game plan, Griffin can also be used from the top of the key at times to serve as a facilitator, thus bringing the Spurs’ bigs further away from the basket and opening up offensive rebounding opportunities for Jordan. So either way this battle goes, the Clippers look like they have the advantage.

February 19, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) scores a basket against the defense of Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) and forward Spencer Hawes (10) during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

One area where the Spurs can create a mismatch is through their floor spacing. Diaw for instance, is a relatively average shooter from distance, as he makes just 37.5 percent of his shots from over 16 feet out. Although, his 32 percent shooting from three-point range is at least efficient enough that it will draw whoever is guarding him away from the basket.

The same applies to Duncan (who shoots 35.6 percent from 16 feet), as he can lure Jordan away from the basket and leave more of the rebounding duties to Griffin.

Bonner, on the other hand, has shot 36.5 percent from deep. Which should be good enough to warrant more attention from the Clippers, but at the same time he’s hardly an important part of the offense and plays little over 10 minutes a game.

Ultimately, the only real threat in the Spurs’ frontcourt is Duncan. Because even though he’s nearly 15 years older than Blake and Jordan, he can still do things like this:

The rebounding edge still heavily relies on Jordan, but if he’s able to grab 18 rebounds (like he has in their last two games against each other) it’s hard not to give the Clippers an advantage here. Of course, Jordan is a liability when it comes to free throw shooting, his 39.7 percent shooting from the stripe can’t be ignored. Yet somehow the Clippers are 12-0 since 2013 when Jordan takes at least 14 free throws (per NBA.com). So even though a lot of that may be a result of last ditch attempts for opponents to fight back into a game during garbage time, it’s still a possible indication that this may not be as much of a problem as you could expect.

Free throw shooting aside, the Clippers’ frontcourt will be a greater offensive threat all together. As other than worrying about Duncan’s 18.3 points per game against L.A. this year, the Clippers should be able to overcome some moderate floor spacing from the Spurs’ bench guys.

Combined, the Clippers’ starting frontcourt have produced 40.6 points per game against the Spurs this season. And when it comes down to Splitter and Diaw, San Antonio really don’t stand much of a chance at stopping Jordan’s dunks or Blake’s ability to score inside.

So as good as Duncan is, he can’t do everything himself. Which is emphasised by fact that the Spurs’ block percentage is halved whenever Timmy goes to the bench.

The Clippers just look too athletic in transition, too strong as rebounders, and — because of Blake — too skilled offensively for players such as Diaw and Splitter to deal with.

All these factors aside, though, the Clippers have an elite offensive and defensive frontcourt in the combination of Griffin and Jordan.

The Spurs? Well they just have Duncan.

This definitely looks like one aspect of this matchup where the Clippers have the defending champions beat, and they’ll need to make the most of it in order to have any chance of advancing to the second round.

Next: NBA Playoffs: How J.J. Redick Can Punish The Spurs