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The first hint that the Spurs were in for a long Saturday night on their AT&T Center home court came when Los Angeles Clippers forward Luc Mbah a Moute nailed a well-contested corner 3-point shot three minutes into the game that gave his team its first lead of the first quarter.
Mbah a Moute is an eight-year pro with a career scoring average of 6.3 points per game and 29.8% long-distance shooting. His presence in Doc Rivers’ starting lineup is testament to his defensive tenacity and rebounding skills, not his ability as a scorer. He entered the game having attempted only 13 shots in five games but by the end of the first half, he had made 4-of-6 shots, including another contested 3-point shot, and scored 11 points, nearly matching the 12 he had scored in his team’s first five games.
It’s the sort of NBA anomaly that often produces surprising results, and the Clippers’ 116-92 blowout win came as a shock to Spurs fans who had come to regard the AT&T Center as a safe haven that nearly guaranteed victory. After all, the Spurs won their first 40 home games in their 67-15 2015-16 season.
They now have two losses in their first three home games of the 2016-17 season.
Saturday’s loss had some especially unusual stretches, starting with the Spurs scoring eight points in the first 84 seconds while not giving up a point.
Then things got really strange. The Clippers went on an 18-2 run that turned into a 36-11 run and a 39-24 lead by quarter’s end.
By halftime, they had scored 73 points, the most productive half by a Spurs opponent in the entire 20-plus years of the Popovich era.
Both teams were playing the second game of back-too-back sets and concluding jam-packed weeks. The Spurs played their fifth game in eight nights; the Clippers were playing their fifth game in seven nights.
“We played great after the first eight points,” said Clippers Coach Doc Rivers, who called an angry time out to slow the Spurs’ early spurt. “Before the game I told our (assistant coaches) I really believe it’s a first-half game. I said whoever gets the lead big enough in the first half is going to win. Both teams looked like they couldn’t walk by the middle of the third quarter.”
By the end of their stressless win, Mbah a Moute and the rest of the Clippers’ starters were watching from the bench. Blake Griffin, who made 12-of-16 shots and scored 26 points in the first half, played only 10 minutes of the third period and finished with 28 points.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich graciously gave Griffin and the Clippers their due and acknowledged the embarrassment.
“Well, Blake was great, but their whole team beat us soundly, embarrassingly,” Popovich said. “They were terrific. Their transition was great. Our transition defense was really poor.
“Blake was obviously really good. Chris Paul was magnificent – running the show and making everything work.
“They beat us very, very, very well.”
For veteran Spurs like new power forward David Lee, it was one of those NBA games that seems to happen to every team each season when one team lacks defensive focus and the other goes on a hot streak.
“Where they’re at their best is when you’re not executing properly offensively, and they can either get a rebound or a steal or force a turnover and get out running. And they were able to get a lot in the fast break and the secondary break. When they get that momentum, and get that going that’s when they’re at their best, and they did that.
“They hit shots tonight. Mbah a Moute is a guy who has taken 10 shots, 13 shots, the whole year and has 11 points the first half. And that’s not making fun. That’s an actual stat. And he hit two corner threes that we closed out on him… . When they’re clicking on all cylinders like that they’re one of the better offensive teams in the league and (we) give them credit for that.”
The Spurs refused to use fatigue as an excuse for their ragged play.
“The fact of it is we’ve had a couple of slow starts at home and the first team has to be responsible to set the tone early and not let this happen,” said starting center Pau Gasol. “You can say fatigue may kick in during the fourth quarter when there’s six minutes left, but you start out the game and we have to come out more aggressive and be more accountable and responsible for stronger starts, especially on our home court.”