NBA Playoffs Preview: Clippers vs. Spurs

Two of the league's best teams square off in the first round. Who will advance?

This isn't your typical 3 seed versus 6 seed matchup.

According to our final power rankings, both teams are top-three teams in the NBA.

Both teams had a shot at the 2 seed going into Tuesday, but when the Spurs lost to the Pelicans, it allowed the Rockets to take the Southwest division title and then bumped the Clippers to the 3 seed. The Warriors have to be excited that one of their two biggest challengers in the Western Conference will be gone in the first round.

This series will be about the Clippers’ efficient offense (their Offensive Rating of 112.4 was best in the NBA this year) versus the Spurs’ determination to get Tim Duncan his sixth ring.

The numbers say that the Clippers have a slightly better offense than the Spurs over the course of the season, but the Spurs have the better defense of both teams. The Clippers claim the regular season's leader in assists (Chris Paul) and rebounds (DeAndre Jordan) per game while the Spurs boast the leader in steals per game (Kawhi Leonard).

With all the accolades both teams have, let's take a closer look at the numbers and see who has the best shot to advance.

Los Angeles Clippers (3)

Record: 56-26
nERD: 72.0
Championship Odds: 11.8%

San Antonio Spurs (6)

Record: 55-27
nERD: 66.9
Championship Odds: 5.6%

Regular Season Series - Clippers 2, Spurs 2

These foes went toe to toe four times this season, and in three of the four games, the margin of victory was just seven points. The Clippers eclipsed 100 points in three of the four games (resulting in two wins) while the Spurs managed to do it just twice. Since January 31st, the Spurs have lost just nine times, but the Clippers accounted for two those losses.

The first game between these two teams saw the return of Kawhi Leonard from his eye injury, and he didn't disappoint. Leonard put up 26 points, shooting 55.6% from the field and a perfect five of five from the charity stripe. Leonard stuffed the rest of his stat sheet with 10 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals to help the Spurs get an early-season win against the Clippers.

The Clippers didn't have to face Leonard in their second matchup, countered his performance in the third game with Blake Griffin, and limited him to four points in their final matchup of the season. The Clippers eclipsed 100 points three times thanks to Blake Griffin putting up at least 22 points in the three games he played in, including 31 points on January 31st.

How can both teams turn the tables in their favor in this series?

How the Clippers Can Win

So what's behind the Clippers most efficient offense in the league? It starts with DeAndre Jordan, but it certainly doesn't stop there. Jordan has been the team's leader in Effective Field Goal percentage at 71.1% with J.J. Redick second among the starters at 60.1%. Granted they take a combined 18.5 shots per game, which Blake Griffin almost does by just himself, but having that consistent production can make up for an off night by another starter.

Even more impressive for Jordan and Redick is that they both were in the top 10 in terms of Effective Field Goal percentage among players that have averaged at least 25 minutes per game, and Matt Barnes and Chris Paul were in the top-25. Only the Warriors and Raptors had more than two players in the top-25 -- each had three.

This balanced approach will be key against the league's second-most efficient defense, especially as the series drags on.

Clippers Player to Watch - DeAndre Jordan

It'd be very easy to put the Clippers bench here, but it's almost non-existent beyond Jamal Crawford. Crawford could then be in this spot, but we've already talked about how he could be a liability on defense. So that's why I bring up DeAndre Jordan, despite his high efficiency marks. However, anyone taking 91.7% of his shots within three feet of the basket should be able to make a majority of them.

But it's not the effectiveness from the field that Clippers should be worried about: it's his effectiveness from the free throw line that they should be concerned with. Jordan, who made the most trips to the charity stripe for the Clippers this year, shot 39.7%.

With the Spurs having Duncan, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner, and Aron Baynes to help employ a "Hack-a-Jordan" technique a few times this series, Jordan's efficiency from the free throw line will be a lot more important than from under the basket.

How the Spurs Can Win

The Spurs need give the keys to Kawhi Leonard and let him do all the steering against the Clippers. It's not as though Tim Duncan and Tony Parker aren't important but rather that the Spurs may need Leonard in this series even more than they did against the Heat in last year's NBA Finals. He brings an aggressiveness that we've seen in Manu Ginobili and Parker throughout the careers but won't be minute-managed like Parker and Ginobili will.

It's not as though Leonard doesn't have Duncan to lean on and a sharp-shooter in Danny Green, but outside of Green and Leonard, Gregg Popovich has been careful with the Big Three this year. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili averaged 28.7 and 22.7 minutes per game this season, the lowest of their respective careers. Tim Duncan notched the third lowest minutes per game (28.9) of his career as well.

Despite missing 18 games this season, Leonard was key for the Spurs. He 8.6 Win Shares -- just one fewer than Duncan, the team's leader. Leonard's Win Shares per 48 came in at .204, also second to Duncan's .207. Both of these were top-10 marks in the regular season of players that amassed at least 2,000 minutes played.

Spurs Player to Watch - Aron Baynes

Enough about the Spurs offense though. Let's talk about their defense: mainly backup center Aron Baynes. He's not the household name Duncan or Leonard are, but he could be a huge contributor, especially in the first two games. Tiago Splitter is the Spurs' main center, but he has been nursing injuries on and off all year. The Spurs have Boris Diaw to help out with the frontcourt rotation, but he hasn't been quite as effective as he was last season.

However, Diaw is getting up there in age just like Duncan and Ginobili, so some fresher legs could be key as Splitter and even Matt Bonner may miss a lot of minutes in the first two games of the series. Baynes won't score a lot of points, but he has earned a lot of playing time this year. He started 17 games this year and started the fourth game of the season against the Clippers, putting up 14 points on 6 of 9 shooting while grabbing 4 rebounds.

Even when Splitter can assume the starting duties again, Baynes should figure heavy into the frontcourt rotation to bump around with DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin.

Series Predictions

This will be an extremely close series, and home court advantage could really play into this matchup because the Clippers were 30-11 at home while the Spurs barely finished with a .500 record on the road (22-19). There will be a lot of high-scoring games, but expect them to be close. It's hard to count out the defending champs after their 11-1 finish to the season, but with the series set to end in Los Angeles, the Spurs could be sent packing sooner than expected.

According to our algorithms: Clippers are 50.18% favorites.

My final prediction: Spurs in seven.