In any other series, with Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant or Dirk Nowitzki commanding the bulk of the defensive attention, Gregg Popovich would scribble a simple yet difficult directive on the board just before Game 1.
This instruction would supersede all other keys to victory.
Keep Kobe, the note would say, off the free throw line. Ditto for Dirk and Durantula.
The Spurs overcame early defensive deficiencies and a woebegone start away from the AT&T Center to secure the Western Conference’s top seed and its best road record. San Antonio survived a middle-of-the-pack finish in points allowed and opponents’ field goal percentage by committing the third fewest fouls in the NBA.
Popovich-coached teams have been judicious in that category since Tim Duncan’s arrival in 1997. The Spurs tend to stay in contact with contending foes by avoiding it on the defensive end.
Welcome to the rare matchup where fouling a lot makes a lot of sense. Attention Reggie Evans, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Kenyon Martin: You have been warned.
The silver and black’s quest for a fifth title resumes tonight in the Alamo City after an eight-day layoff that felt, at times, like a month-long vacation.
The Spurs swept the Utah Jazz in a tussle as competitive as a track star racing his 80-year-old grandmother up two flights of stairs.
Next up for San Antonio: a date with L.A.’s emerging, precocious, alley-ooping stepsibling. The Oklahoma City Thunder hammered Hollywood’s big brother Lakers 119-90 in the opener of their conference semifinal clash. The Clippers figure to make tonight’s affair a bit more competitive.
Chris Paul runs L.A.’s offense as well as any active floor general. He flummoxes opposing coverages in the final moments, either bagging his own clutch shots or finding teammates with open looks via laser-like passes. He zips, zigs and zags until he sees something he wants. Then he takes it.
Nick Young, Mo Williams and Caron Butler can heat up from downtown faster than a sweltering summer day in South Texas. They will keep the Spurs considerable arsenal of perimeter defenders—Stephen Jackson, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green—occupied.
Expect Griffin and Jordan to flush a few lob passes per game courtesy of CP3. That, of course, is what three of the Clippers best players do best.
It is one reason San Antonio should make this a short series. While such stunning athleticism is a useful trait, it helps to have something else in the bank if those fast-break checks bounce.
When Griffin cannot face up a few feet away from the basket or throw down a vicious dunk in transition, he will struggle to overpower Tim Duncan’s interior savvy. Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter can also use physicality and bothersome bulk to clog up the middle for Bad Blake.
Jordan’s offense is primitive enough to make Robinson Crusoe look like the late Steve Jobs.
Paul will get from Tony Parker as much as he gives. The pair of MVP candidates will spar to the point of canceling each other out.
Popovich will continue to shuffle 10 to 11 players in the most expansive playoff rotation he has ever employed.
Gary Neal will net his chance to go bonkers from three. Manu Ginobili will try to get untracked. Jackson, Leonard, Green and Matt Bonner will stay ready for crisp kick-out passes from Ginobili and Parker.
Duncan and Splitter will take turns anchoring the interior attack. While one sits on the bench, the other will bombard the basket on the receiving end of pick-and-roll dishes like a rolling stone on a downward slope adhering to the law of inertia.
Most pundits, if not all, expect Popovich to outclass Vinny Del Negro in the coaching department. This preview from NBA.com’s Charley Rosen contains one example of that prominent opinion.
If, however, Paul becomes too much to handle, or the Clippers three-point bombers begin to connect on some grenades, Popovich can rely on a seldom used but unforgettable tactic to slow down L.A.
Shaquille O’Neal should remember this. After all, it was devised to stymie the center’s ability to bully defenders in the paint.
Popovich dusted off the strategy in the 2008 Playoffs as a means to disrupt the offensive flow between Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire in a first-round match that commenced with a double-overtime thriller.
Hacking O’Neal, a notoriously opprobrious free-throw shooter, meant Stoudemire touched the ball less, and as a result, became less interested in offering resistance on either end as the series progressed.
Nash still averaged 16 points and 7 assists, but the increased disengagement of his favorite target helped neutralize his impact. O’Neal bricked more than 50 percent of his tries from the charity stripe. He failed to make any freebies that counted.
The Spurs’ coach worked his way up via Larry Brown. Dean Smith—a sideline legend with a coaching tree that seems to have endless roots—mentored Popovich.
He built much of his revered San Antonio program using Jerry Sloan’s no-nonsense, pitbull Jazz as a model.
Yet, Popovich also took notes from the guy who pioneered small-ball and a defense centered on grabbing the opponent’s poorest foul shooter.
Don Nelson once sent in Bubba Wells to wrap up Dennis Rodman. The result was the quickest foul out, to that point, in NBA history.
Wells racked up six fouls in three minutes, a dubious feat that will live forever in the record books. Rodman converted 9 of the 12 free throws afforded to him during that stretch, negating the intent of the incessant intentional fouls, but the concept stuck.
It endured even after O’Neal called it quits and transitioned from the hardwood to a TNT studio analyst.
Popovich ordered a pair of reserves to hack Dwight Howard two seasons ago to preserve a double-figure lead in the closing moments. He resorted to the tactic as a means to prevent the Magic from rallying with a barrage of three-point hits.
It worked then, and when needed, it should work now.
Charity stripe incompetence is contagious on the Clippers.
In the previous series against the Grizzlies, Griffin converted just 59 percent of his freebies. Jordan connected on 39 percent of his foul shots. The free throw percentages for Martin, Evans and Eric Bledsoe in the last round: 50, 46 and 57.
Is there a good reason for Popovich not to ask select players to foul the bejesus out of those serial bricklayers?
While no one can dispute that the scheme detracts from the game’s beauty and its rhythm, is that not the point?
The opposite argument should also nullify the rampant distaste for the hack-a-whoever procedure. What stops these offenders from hitting a gym and learning to make them?
Those contributors averse to emulating Rick Barry’s underhanded stroke should understand that nothing is less macho than a coach parking a key cog on the bench with the outcome up for grabs because he is a free throw liability.
Paul and Parker will have a lot to say about an intriguing battle that begins tonight.
If, however, Paul begins to speak too much, Popovich can fall back on an occasional crutch that will make the aforementioned Clippers wince more than any viewer or TV executive.
In most series', the chief message on Popovich’s pre-game board stays the same.
Evans, Griffin, Bledsoe, Martin and Jordan should give him five reasons to change it.
Cory Joseph might log some playing time after all.