Four years ago today, the San Antonio Spurs and the New Orleans Hornets were in the middle of a seven game series that was both entertaining and not. Only one of their 2008 Western Conference Semifinal series was decided by less than ten points and more were decided by closer than 21 points with the home team winning every game except Game Seven, which the Spurs won in New Orleans.
The premier match up of that series was Chris Paul and Tony Parker. Paul, the league’s best player that year (he finished second to Kobe Bryant in MVP voting, which was incorrect on the voter’s part) versus Parker, the league’s reigning Finals MVP. Paul was brilliant that series, averaging almost 24 points, 11 assists, four boards and 2.6 steals a game. Parker wasn’t Paul brilliant, but his 19 points and nearly six assists per game were key, particularly in the Games Three and Four when the Spurs were able to even up the series. As great as their 2008 match up was, 2012 has the potential to be even better. Paul in the midst of another MVP caliber season and Parker having his first and is also the true focal point of the Spurs’ offense for the first time in his career.
The Spurs and Clippers played three times this season, the Spurs winning the first two and the Clippers winning their final match up. Parker didn’t play in that game, but it may not have had mattered if he did. Paul and Mo Williams both played out of their minds and the Spurs helped them by playing very little defense. Parker bested Paul in the two games both played in, averaging 22 points and 9.5 assists to Paul’s 15.5 points and 7.5 assists. According to NBA Stats Cube, Parker’s plus/minus was an absurd +20.5 when he and Paul were on the court at the same time. This isn’t significant in a who’s better head to head way, because Paul and Parker actually don’t guard each other that much. Where it is significant is that it shows that the Spurs defended Paul fairly well this season and the Clippers couldn’t seem to figure Parker out. Expect that trend to continue at least through Game One considering Vinny Del Negro and his staff will have just over 48 hours to game plan for Parker.
What the Clippers do on offense isn’t incredibly complicated, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to stop. The Spurs are going to see a healthy dose of Paul high pick-and-rolls. You saw it against Memphis. The screen gets set just above the three point line so Paul can get a running start around the screen and go right at the the larger defender. More time than not that big defender is worried about getting blown by so he hangs back and Paul pulls up for a 17 foot jumper that he has mastered. It’s likely the Spurs will try trapping Paul above the three point line, bring help from different parts of the court (something coach Gregg Popovich is legendary for) or let Paul score as many points as he wants without getting his teammates involved, which is something they did a lot versus Steve Nash during a lot of those Spurs-Phoenix Suns series.
When the Spurs won their second title in 2003 and the Minnesota Timberwolves made their playoff run the next season, I thought we were headed for a half decade of Tim Duncan-Kevin Garnett playoff match ups. Two of the best power forwards of their era (and possibly ever) going at it year after year would’ve been something even the NBA casual fan could’ve gotten behind even if it was the T’Wolves and Spurs slugging it out. We didn’t get that mostly thanks to Kevin McHale being a bad General Manager (we did get some classic Duncan-Dirk match ups though). Paul-Parker has the potential to be what Duncan/Garnett never was over the next few years. We’ve already seen one epic clash. Chapter two starts Tuesday night.