The Los Angeles Clippers won Game 7 in Memphis to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in a riveting and grueling first round series. Their reward? A trip straight to Texas to face the red-hot and rested San Antonio Spurs. The Clippers defied the predictions of many in beating Memphis, and certainly defied the odds by winning Game 7 on the road, but now they come up against the mighty Spurs. Do they even stand a chance?
The odds seem stacked against them. Consider:
- The Spurs have not played in eight days after sweeping their first round series with Utah. The Clippers played Sunday in a very physical Game 7 and will be playing their sixth game in 11 days.
- The Spurs are as healthy as they've been all season. The Clippers are dealing with injuries to three starters -- Caron Butler playing with a broken hand, Chris Paul dealing with a strained hip flexor, and Blake Griffin battling a sprained knee. Of the three injuries, Griffin's is the biggest concern heading into Game 1, though he insists he'll play.
- The Spurs are the hottest team in basketball. They won 21 of 23 to finish the regular season, and are riding a 14 game winning streak including the playoffs. The Clippers closed the season strong as well -- but that's ridiculous.
And that is to say nothing of the history of the teams.The Spurs have won four NBA titles and been to the playoffs 24 times in the last 27 seasons. The Clippers have never gotten beyond the second round, and have had a losing regular season record 23 times in the past 27 years. The worst winning percentage in the 15 full seasons Gregg Popovich has coached the Spurs is .610 -- better than the best winning percentage in Clippers' franchise history (this season's .606).
Their head to head history is even more lopsided, if that's possible. The Spurs are 84-22 against the Clippers since 1985-1986. During the Popovich era, it's worse still -- the Spurs are 48-7 against the LAC since the current San Antonio coach's first training camp in 1997.
And then there's the Clippers record in San Antonio, where the series opens. The Clippers are 8-46 in the Alamo City since 1985 -- they are 2-28 against Popovich-led teams. Most disconcerting of all, they are 1-17 all time in the current home of the Spurs, the AT&T Center where the series opens Tuesday.
But you know what? They were 0-17 until March when they finally broke through and got the win, so when you think about it, they've got a winning streak going in San Antonio right now. Jokes aside, the pathetic past of the Clippers doesn't really matter that much any more, because none of those teams had what this team has.
The Clippers have a chance in this series for one reason: Chris Paul. He was the best player in their first round series and they won for that reason. There's every reason to believe that he'll be the best player in this series as well.
The strange thing about the Spurs is that if you ignore the win-loss record and just look at the roster, they seem much less intimidating. Sure, there's the legendary big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. But beyond those guys, the rest of the roster looks underwhelming (though we know they don't play that way). Aside from Duncan, the bigs of Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair, are all limited in one way or another. Let's face it, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are a more formidable duo than any two bigs the Spurs can put on the floor. Stephen Jackson was a nice late season acquisition, but he's been an inefficient scorer his whole career. They can put shooters on the floor, that's for sure, but on paper, the team does not look unstoppable by any means.
Of course, the games aren't played on paper, they're played on hardwood, and out there the Spurs are tough to stop. They execute their offense better than any team in the league. Their floor spacing is always perfect, the ball and man movement is unmatched, and Parker is almost impossible to stop in the pick and roll. Gregg Popovich won the Coach of the Year award and is legitimately the best coach in the NBA for one simple reason -- everyone in a Spurs uniform is completely bought in to the system. If they weren't, they wouldn't be there.
But the Clippers have reason to have some confidence heading into San Antonio. For one thing, they do have that road win under their belt at this point (although that March game was a bit of an outlier -- Parker didn't play and the Clippers shot the lights out, with Mo Williams hitting 7-9 from three point range). Three weeks prior to that March meeting, the Clippers had the Spurs beaten, up by three in the final seconds of a game in STAPLES Center. At that point, an inbounds play went horribly wrong, Paul threw the ball to Gary Neal behind the three point arc, he tied the game, and the Spurs wound up winning in overtime. So the Clippers are one inbounds pass away from having won the season series against the Spurs. On the regular season at least, the Clippers competed with San Antonio very effectively.
To win the series, the Clippers will have to win at least one game in the Alamo City, but winning Game 1 would take a miracle. The Clippers are too tired and too hurt, the Spurs are too rested. The odds may be better as the series wears on. The Clippers best players are younger than the Spurs best players, and with back-to-back games this weekend, L.A. may pick up a slight advantage in the second week of the series, when fatigue becomes an issue for both teams.
Then again, the Clippers pulled off a miracle by winning Game 1 in Memphis, coming back from 24 points down in the final eight minutes. Maybe they've got another Game 1 miracle in them. With Chris Paul, anything is possible.