San Antonio Spurs vs. Los Angeles Clippers Game 7 Preview: Who Has the Edge?
The first-round series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Clippers has been a beacon of light in an otherwise dark group of first-round NBA series.
Five first-round matchups ended in five games or fewer. The Bulls demolished the Bucks in the deciding Game 6. And the likely overmatched Nets will try to stave off elimination in six games tonight.
The battle between 3-seeded Los Angeles and 6-seeded San Antonio, though, has more than lived up to its billing as a matchup between the second and third best teams in our power rankings.
Fortunately for neutral fans, it has been stretched to the max, as the Clippers won 102-96 Thursday to force a Game 7, set to take place Saturday evening at Staples Center.
The two teams have been separated by an average of 0.8 points per game in the series, and three of the six games have been within four points or fewer with 1:00 left in the fourth quarter.
Here are some things to watch for when these two teams meet for the right to face the Houston Rockets in the next round.
When looking at any basketball game, the best place to start is always the Four Factors, which encompass shooting from the field (as measured by Effective Field Goal Percentage), rebounding, turnovers, and getting to the free throw line.
Here is how the teams performed during the regular season, on both offense and defense (defensive numbers are in the latter four columns, with the "o" in oeFG%, oTOV%, and oFT/FGA standing for opponent.)
And here are these same stats for the first six games of this series.
It should be noted the Clippers' free-throw rate is inflated by the infamous Hack-a-Jordan strategy, which, while unpopular, has worked. DeAndre Jordan has made just 25 free throws on 64 attempts this series, a 39.1% free throw percentage.
Jordan's poor shooting from the charity stripe is not a surprise, and neither is the fact that there has not been much offensive rebounding in the series. Both teams finished in the bottom six in offensive rebound rate and top 10 in defensive rebound rate, so the fact that both teams are below the league-average offensive rebound rate of 25.1% makes sense.
Another thing that sticks out is that both teams are shooting worse from the field in the series than they did during the regular season.
The Clippers' Struggles From Deep
In the case of Los Angeles, they are scoring more than six points per 100 possession less per game, despite stellar efforts from Chris Paul (averaging 22.0 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, with a 119.0 Offensive Rating) and Blake Griffin (who is scoring a series-high 24.2 points per game with a 109.0 Offensive Rating).
The team's low eFG% certainly appears to be a result of poor three-point shooting, as they are shooting 29.2% from deep against the Spurs after finishing third in the league with a 37.6% three-point percentage during the regular season.
The Clippers are also taking a lower frequency of shots from beyond the arc. They were third in the league in three-point attempts per field goal attempt during the season (.392) but are averaging .238 during this series (the league average in the regular season was .268).
JJ Redick is shooting 37.9% from deep (down from his 40.0% career rate and 43.7% rate during the regular season) but is the only Clipper shooting above the league-average. Paul is shooting 34.5% on threes (down from 39.8% in the regular season), while Matt Barnes is 7-for-21 and Jamal Crawford is 4-for-25 (16.0%).
What role have the Spurs played here?
Three-point shooting defense tends to be more random than it is generally thought to be, while limiting three-point attempts themselves is a more consistent and reliable way of measuring how teams defend the arc. Dan Feldman found this to be the case a few years ago at Basketball Prospectus, and his-then colleague Kevin Pelton (now at ESPN) said the noise in three-point percentage defense is magnified in small samples (Ken Pomeroy has reached similar conclusions with regards to the college game as well).
This makes sense given the results of this series, as San Antonio ranked 24th in three-point percentage defense (36.0%) but was second in three-point attempts per field goal (.226).
So while the Clippers' ineffective three-point shooting is seemingly just the result of a small sample size fluke, the Spurs deserve credit for keeping them off the line in the first place.
The Spurs' Struggles Inside
San Antonio, which shot 36.7% from three-point range during the season, is at 36.0% in the series and shooting more frequently from deep against the Clippers (with a .311 attempt rate versus their .269 mark in the regular season; the Clippers defense tied for 26th in attempt rate at .290).
The Spurs' problems from the field have come inside the arc, where they are shooting 48.0% in the series, after ranking fifth in the NBA with a 50.5% two-point shooting percentage.
This issue is most pronounced inside, where the Spurs are shooting 53.0% from within eight feet, according to NBA.com/stats. While the Spurs shot 59.6% from this area during the regular season, their percentage in the playoffs would have ranked 25th.
In the restricted area, San Antonio is shooting 60.4%, a mark that would have tied for 15th (in the regular season, the Spurs were 10th).
The problem here has not been Tim Duncan (119.0 Offensive Rating during the series) or Leonard (111.0), as Duncan is shooting 66.7% at the rim on 5.5 attempts per game, while Leonard is shooting 81.3% there on 2.7 attempts per game.
Parker is also shooting 16.0% from mid range on 4.2 attempts per game in the series, bringing San Antonio's shooting percentage from that range down to 37.0% from 40.6% during the regular season.
It has been a rare playoff series to forget for Parker, who is averaging 9.3 points and 3.3 assists per game, with a 32.9% Effective Field Goal Percentage and 82.0 Offensive Rating.
The Clippers have homecourt advantage, and our model thinks they are the better team anyway.
It makes sense, then, that our math gives the Clippers a 61.6% chance to advance.