Efficiency experts strike again

LOS ANGELES -- For those who believe in cosmic order, the San Antonio Spurs' 96-86 comeback win over the Los Angeles Clippers provided a bold confirmation.

At some point, prosperity will be balanced by misfortune, bad will even out good and a team like the Clippers that roared back from 27 points down in their first-round series will inevitably have to answer to universal payback.

Up 24 points three minutes into the second quarter of Game 3 against San Antonio on Saturday afternoon, the Clippers coughed up the lead as the Spurs roared back and went ahead before the midway point of the third quarter.

Chris Paul called the collapse "devastating." Blake Griffin said the loss hurt every bit as bad as the Clippers' historic Game 1 rally in Memphis felt good.

"To be up that much early," Griffin said. "They're too good of a team to just kind of lay back and take a loss like that. They lock you down. In the second half -- especially the third quarter -- we did a poor job of responding."

You have to hand it to the Spurs -- they're efficient. Most teams would dig out of a 24-point hole with a 41-17 run, maybe 48-24. Not the Spurs. They wiped out the Clippers' largesse in one fell swoop by assembling a 24-0 spurt that turned a 57-45 deficit into a 69-57 lead, one they'd never relinquish.

Following the game, San Antonio didn't put too fine a point on the comeback. So far as the Spurs were concerned, they just pressed reset, returning to the principles and system that have guided them to 17 consecutive wins. The Spurs were like a plane flight with a monster tailwind: "We're late leaving the gate? No sweat. We'll just make it up in the air."

"We did not plan on being down that much," Tim Duncan said. "But we understood they were going to make a run early and that we had to sustain. We've been through enough of them that we understand that's kind of how it goes. It was great poise by a bunch of different people, our entire team."

A trademark Spurs performance was, appropriately enough, led by Duncan and Tony Parker. Duncan recorded 19 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks, while Parker led San Antonio with 23 points and 10 assists.

When those two work symbiotically, they're nearly impossible to stop. Griffin illustrated the mind-bender of trying to contain the Spurs when Parker and Duncan have it going:

"When [the Spurs] spread the floor and Tim Duncan runs in a high pick-and-roll, it's trouble for a lot of teams," Griffin said. "If you sit in, they'll find the open guy. They're a very good 3-point shooting team. If you stay out [on 3-point shooters], then Tim is going to get something in the middle."

During the Spurs' furious run during the second and third quarters, the Clippers couldn't keep up with the whack-a-mole defensive challenge presented by what Griffin described.

The Spurs cut the lead to single digits three minutes into the third quarter when, as Griffin said, the Clippers "sat in" on the Parker-Duncan pick-and-roll. That resulted in a 3-pointer from rookie Kawhi Leonard, who finished the game with 14 points. On the next possession, the Clippers were slow to collapse -- perhaps out of fear of yielding another open look from behind the arc. This time, the Parker-Duncan pick-and-roll produced a close-range shot at the rim for Duncan. The next basket came in transition, when a wily steal by Leonard led to a layup for Parker on the other end.

Since they came on the scene in the late '90s, many NBA fans and observers have regarded the Spurs as dull, and for years they succeeded on the strength of a defense-first mentality.

But over the past two seasons, the Spurs have changed the components of their formula. San Antonio is now the league's most efficient offense, with a defense that puts up respectable numbers but doesn't rank among the league leaders.

Prior to the game, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich discussed the shift in philosophy the organization has undergone in recent seasons. It was a change Popovich said management and the coaching staff discussed at length during training camp a couple years ago.

"As we got a little bit older and the personnel changed, we were going to go from one of the best defensive teams to a more middle-of-the-road defensive teams," Popovich said. "Something had to change if we wanted to continue to win at a high level. So we went to the offense about two years ago and kind of shifted it to pick up the pace, to shift a little from inside to outside. Some of the offense went from Timmy a little bit more to Manu [Ginobili] and Tony. Attack early in the clock, kind of Mike D'Antoni-ish. We tried to get that into the program."

The Spurs have picked up their pace, gamble a tad more on defense and generally look to push the tempo. Those who haven't given the Spurs a serious viewing over the past couple years might be surprised by what has become some of the most eye-catching offense in the NBA.

On a professional level, Popovich said that the change wasn't merely a product of necessity, but also rejuvenating for a coaching staff and roster that had known only one thing for the better part of a decade.

"It was great because we'd been the same team for a long time," Popovich said. "If you want to keep winning you have to be aware of changes that might need to be made. It was pretty obvious we had to do it. But it did make it more fun. I think the players enjoyed it, too. They were probably getting bored of the same old stuff."

This is the language of a creative person, someone who values not only result, but the process of his work. Popovich isn't just a tactician, he's one of the most expansive thinkers in the game.

For all the change the Spurs have installed in their on-court program, several constants remain. For one, the Spurs still recognize the corner 3 as the NBA's most efficient shot. On Saturday afternoon, they exploited the Clippers' slow rotations to drain six of them.

Many of the other enduring features are more intangible in nature, qualities embodied by Duncan and Popovich. At the podium, Duncan was asked about the contributions of Leonard in Game 3. Duncan praised his rookie teammate's temperament.

"In the case of [Leonard], I don't think he ever gets excited," Duncan said. "He's absolutely even-keeled the entire time. He's even more mellow than me if that's possible."

The final quip elicited laughs from those congregated, especially when they considered the source. Duncan is regarded as the NBA's most understated star. In a league in which so much action is fueled by hot blood, Duncan prefers mellowness to emotion as a virtue.

"It's essential," Duncan said of that mellowness. "Trying to stay cool and collected when things are going in all different directions around you -- if you can keep that even keel, you're not affected by the good or the bad as much. It's a great quality to have."