AT&T CENTER–The crowd already on their feet, Tim Duncan and Blake Griffin took to the air on a collision course late in the fourth quarter that sent both crashing to the ground. It was, up until a few minutes later, the loudest ovation the AT&T Center has offered all season.
It was a rare demonstrative night from Duncan. In the moment the 36-year old Duncan challenged the NBA’s highest flyer at the apex of his height–delivering a clean, but hard foul–he showed the competitive fire he still has within. A few minutes later he would let that fire out.
Trailing by one after an inbounds foul granted Chris Paul a go-ahead free throw, the Spurs found Duncan coming off a pindown screen from Kawhi Leonarrd. Duncan curled and faked the Clippers’ Willie Green in the air, drawing contact as he sank the game’s final basket.
With the ball settling into the net, Duncan gave a rare celebratory yell, tugging on his jersey and strutted down the other end of the court. He then calmly sank his free throw to put the finishing touches on his 34-point, 11-rebound, three-assist, two-block performance and the San Antonio Spurs 104-102 win over the Los Angeles Clippers.
“Just look at his line and be amazed that he’s doing what he’s doing,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s done the work to put himself into position to have games like this. You couldn’t be more of a guy tonight with what he did out there.”
The game began with crisp ball movement from both teams, but quickly escalated into a entertainingly physical contest.
In the two teams’ previous meeting the Spurs dismantled the Clippers offense by shrinking it down to one side of the court. The strategy was less effective in the first half, as Chris Paul (14 points, 12 assists) found the middle of the court through dribble penetration, or the open weakside shooter through a quick ball reversal.
The San Antonio Spurs answered with some brilliant interior passing from Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, and Tony Parker, primarily benefiting Tiago Splitter, who scored 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting; as well as the play of Parker (24 points, eight assists), who consistently turned the corner on Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe.
Duncan also found room for his jumper on a few pin down screens, the very play that opened up his game-winning jumper.
If the defense was largely absent–both teams shot around 60 percent in the first half–the intensity and chippiness were definitely present.
Between Paul, Matt Barnes, and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers physicality increased exponentially. As Barnes sent players to the ground, each Spurs player reacted differently. Parker got up with a smirk, clearly unhappy with the shot he took. Duncan got up quickly and aggressively, his body language betraying some emotion. Manu Ginobili got hurt. And Popovich let his frustrations build until he unleashed his wrath on a referee for a non-call that led to a Duncan turnover from the post with 4:24 left in the first half.
Popovich got a technical foul, Duncan by all rights should’ve had one of his own a play later, the Clippers jumped out to a nine-point lead, and then Duncan got angry.
“He may not have the most facial expressions, but he can get pretty fired up,” Spurs guard Danny Green said. “[After the technical] he said I’m going to score or they’re going to foul me.”
From that point on Duncan put the team on his back, scoring 10 points over the last three-and-a-half minutes of the first half, getting to the line, knocking down turnaround jumpers, and running the floor for an emphatic dunk.
“There was a stretch there where they put the whistle away, and it gave me a little energy to play a little harder,” Duncan admitted after the game. “We know they’re a very physical team, and we know we have to up our intensity in that respect, and we matched it pretty well.”
The game was for all intents and purposes a look into what would be an epic playoff series between two title hopefuls willing to trade shots and elbows.
It was another grind-it-out victory, mirroring their previous win over the Denver Nuggets, with Duncan and Parker taking the lead and their crunch-time defense following suit. In a stretch that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called a welcome final exam before the playoffs, the Spurs have produced two playoff-quality wins.
“It’s great for us right now, it’s building something in us,” Duncan said. “We’ve had some big losses and big wins, and in this part of the year it’s good to get that feeling prior to the playoffs.”