Clippers use Spurs as a model for success

Chris Paul admires the Spurs' consistent success, a quality the Clippers are trying to emulate. Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US Presswire

LOS ANGELES -- The sound of Gregg Popovich's voice was seared into the minds of the Los Angeles Clippers during an extended offseason that began earlier than they would have liked after they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the playoffs six months ago.

"If you pass down the shot, you're coming out of the game," Popovich would yell at Gary Neal after he made one too many passes to Danny Green, ignoring an open look.

Clippers players were quietly in awe of the Spurs' dedication to a system that was so strong and so consistent that it was never affected by one bad pass or one bad shot. Clippers players talked to one other about certain plays in the game that the Spurs would make as if they were trying to figure out a magic trick.

"My old coach, Monty Williams, used to say you have to analyze success," Clippers guard Chris Paul said. "They're successful for a reason."

Williams and Paul's current coach, Vinny Del Negro, should know a thing or two about Popovich's success -- both Del Negro and Williams played under Popovich with the Spurs.

They both know the key to the Spurs' success can actually be found in the words of Jacob Riis, social reformer who died nearly 100 years ago. A famous Riis quote has been plastered in the Spurs' locker room for as long as Popovich has been in San Antonio.

"When nothing seems to help," it reads, "I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before."

It's the kind of consistency and patience the Clippers are still trying to attain less than a year after reshaping the image of the franchise after trading for Paul last December.

If the Clippers' 106-84 win over the Spurs on Wednesday night is any indication, the Clippers are further ahead than they were last season and may be onto something special if they can somehow pretend every team they face is a playoff team. The Clippers are 3-2 this season with wins over the Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies with inexcusable home losses to the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers sandwiched in between.

"That doesn't look right, we're trying to figure that out," Paul said. "We can't be a team that plays down to the level of our competition."

Popovich is no stranger to what the Clippers are trying to do. Del Negro routinely calls his former coach to pick his brain in the offseason and has ever since he retired as a player. But now Del Negro is doing it with an eye to emulate and possibly overtake his mentor.

"You have to have the desire to do it, it has to be in your blood, and Vinny had that," Popvich said. "He always had suggestions and he always wanted to talk about basketball. He watched film and understood what won or lost. He's one of the best pick-and-roll players I've ever had. He understands what it meant and how to put it together."

The one thing Del Negro couldn't do, however, was play defense. Popovich smiles when he says Del Negro "couldn't play a lick of D" and that the Spurs still run a "Del Negro" defense at times.

"We had to invent something just to hide him," Popovich said. "So we call it 'Del Negro' and you do certain things on the court and everybody has to make up for that guy who's the 'Del Negro.'"

Del Negro is obviously trying to get his players to play better defense than he did while still trying to model a culture that has worked in San Antonio over the past 15 years.

"They've had the system in there and the players and they work it," Del Negro said. "They are as consistent a team as you'll find. They've built a culture and an environment there that has given them consistent high-level success. If you're going to build a model it's probably a pretty good one to start with."

Even as the Clippers built a 26-point lead against the Spurs on Wednesday night, they never let up, remembering when San Antonio overcame a 24-point deficit to beat them in Los Angeles in the playoffs.

Even though it's hard to make a correlation between a regular-season game in November and a playoff game in May, it was clear the lessons of that loss six months ago were still felt.

"One thing about San Antonio is that they never give up," Paul said. "I don't care if Pop takes out the first five, when Gary Neal and those guys come in they keep playing hard. They play the same way for 48 minutes. That's why they're a tough team and always will be.

Popovich is beginning to see a familiar foundation being laid down for the Clippers' success but laughed when he was told Blake Griffin was trying to model his game after Tim Duncan's.

"Well, when Timmy was in his prime, he jumped about that high," Popovich said, raising his index finger and thumb about an inch apart. "That comparison doesn't work real well."

Even if the players don't compare, if the Clippers are able to enjoy some sustained success, they're hoping to one day draw some comparisons to the Spurs.

"The Clippers haven't been together very long," Popovich said. "Last year they weren't really together. It's not like they've been together for five years and they know each other and everything is golden and everything is smooth. It takes time for a team to get to know each other.

"They made a huge leap last year and became a very good basketball team and they're going to be an even better team this year. The only question is how good and how much better."