With the Clippers up by 15 points after a great third quarter, the Spurs started the final period ready to make a run of their own. They scored 10 points in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter, before Chris Paul and Blake Griffin checked back in, yet still trailed by 12 at the nine-minute mark. Jamal Crawford‘s five points on two tough pull-ups allowed Los Angeles to keep its distance despite not having its best two offensive players on the court. After that, the Clippers cruised to a crucial Game 1 win.
That three-minute stretch proved just how important Crawford is for the Clippers. Last year’s Sixth Man of the Year is relied upon to anchor units that would be lost without him and essentially be the bench scoring. When he shares the court with the starters, he takes a backseat and scores efficiently. For a team that lacks depth, Crawford is essential, the only sub that can give them serious minutes while not being a detriment.
Coming into the playoffs there was reasonable skepticism as to how good Crawford was going to be. He had a down year in almost every counting stat and suffered from nagging injuries. Since returning after his last one for the last four games of the regular season, he averaged just seven points on 28 percent shooting. His 17 points on 10 shots to start the series against San Antonio were not only a pleasant surprise but absolutely essential to the Clippers’ win:
Crawford is notoriously streaky, but the Clippers will need him to continue to provide a scoring punch as a sub. They’re going against a Spurs team that brings Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw off the bench and has some streaky shooters of its own in Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli. It’s an understatement to say the Spurs have an edge when it comes to depth. If no one is there to pour in points when Paul and Griffin rest, the Spurs’ bench will go on runs that’ll erase everything positive the starters accomplished early.
When the two Clippers stars and Crawford rest, they only score 92 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank dead last in the league. When Paul and Griffin rest but Crawford are on the court, that number climbs to 100 points. He’s their only legitimate rotation player off the bench, as Glen Davis and Austin Rivers aren’t even replacement-level talents at this point. While he’s not as important in the grand scheme of things as the stars, Crawford might just be the key for the Clippers in the first-round series against a Spurs team that’s not afraid to use 11 players in a single game.
While Crawford is essentially the Clippers’ bench, that’s not where his entire value resides. The Spurs made it a point to shut down J.J. Redick, having Kawhi Leonard on him to start the game. Redick had some open shots later on but finished the game 4-13 from the field. Matt Barnes is an opportunistic spot-up shooter but that’s his only skill on offense. There will be times when Crawford will be asked to ease Paul’s burden as the only perimeter creator and fill in with the starting unit when the other wing options are cold. It didn’t happen in Game 1, but a small wing lineup with Crawford at shooting guard next to Paul was the Clippers’ second-most used lineup during the regular season.
The Spurs are expected to make adjustments. Putting Leonard on Paul full time could be one of them, and they’ve been switching some pick-and-rolls to prevent easy buckets. San Antonio was one of the best defensive teams in the league all season and Tiago Splitter, a linchpin on that end, should be getting more minutes as the series progresses after an injury. If the defense tightens up and takes away their first options, the Clippers will need to find alternative scoring sources in crunch time.
That’s what has kept Crawford in the league for 15 years: he’s impossible to game plan for because he’s unpredictable and he has a penchant for making big shots.
Take this pull-up from the second quarter, when the Clippers were trying to create separation:
That’s the definition of what has come to be known as a bad shot: Early in the shot clock, without exploring other options, pulling up and from mid-range. Typically teams will live with those looks, yet Crawford shoots a solid 47 percent after two dribbles and over 48 percent early in the shot clock. He’s exactly the kind of guy who can break the spirits of a team that does everything right only to see the opponent get points anyway. Even the smartest, most efficient offenses need a guy who can get things done when nothing else is working, and Crawford is that player for Los Angeles.
Game 1 went as well as the Clippers could have expected, and that includes how Crawford performed. Expecting a similar showing in Game 2 and going forward might not be wise. Yet it might also not be necessary for LA to advance. As long as he provides the bench with some scoring and takes care of secondary ball handling when he shares the court with Paul, the Clippers won’t need him to go 7-10 again. His unpredictability is what has always separated him from players with similar skill sets — for better or for worse — and is what can help the Clippers continue in the winning path against the Spurs.