Today has to be the crow-eating-est day in the history of American sports trash-talking. There are literally millions of boxing fans from across the globe who are having to payout bets, rescind prior pontificates and shamelessly skulk through their places of business or academic study with collective tales tucked between their legs.
Indeed, though many applauded the possibility of a historic change with the Mayweather vs. Pacquiao fight, the culmination of first round action in the NBA playoffs and even the surprise win by American Pharaoh in the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby, the shock and awe of the weekend was made flesh when the mighty San Antonio Spurs were dethroned by their former sparring partners turned heavyweight contenders, the Los Angeles Clippers.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Clippers were named the worst professional sports franchise in the world by Forbes Magazine in 2009. Couple that with a parade of talented yet uninspired players who wore the red, white and blue for their own financial glory rather than the greater good of all in Clipper Nation and you have the makings of a franchise with a very fragile psyche.
On Saturday, the Los Angeles Clippers cleared a major hurdle in the team’s playoff history in defeating the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in a seven-game series. Will PG Chris Paul’s personal exorcism of the silver and black clad demons that have haunted him since his time with the New Orleans Hornets come with a new level of respectability from the NBA media? Perhaps not. However, their savage criticisms of his clutchness have been domesticated. His 7-point, 4-assist Game 3 performance against the Spurs was the only dismal outlier amid stellar performances throughout the rest of the series, including a hobbled 27-point performance in the deciding Game 7.
Chris Paul wasn’t the only Clipper who had a great deal to prove. Although Blake Griffin has only been in the National Basketball Association for five years, he has been labelled as something of an under-performer despite averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds over his first four visits to the playoffs-including this year in which he’s averaging 24 points, 13 rebounds and an eye-opening seven assists per game.
Those numbers are on some all-time type ish. Virtually unheard for a non-guard to pass like that. Griffin is solidifying himself as the best passing power forward since Chris Webber in his Sacramento Kings days. He’s easily the most exciting player in Los Angeles who never wore a Lakers uniform, but a beauty in sports might sell tickets.
However, it’s not conducive to winning. Grit, grind, sweat and hard work are. But the man who the casual fan only knows from the humorous KIA commercials showed true grit against the Spurs and will be looking to continue that toughness against the Houston Rockets.
Additionally, although DeAndre Jordan has been scoring and rebounding above his regular season pace, his inability to hit a free throw when it matters most greatly limited his effectiveness in late game situations. Also, the elder Tim Duncan was skewering the perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate on a regular basis in their series with his legendary array of post moves, mid-range jump shots and all around guile.
The match-up against Dwight Howard of the Houston Rockets appears to be more favorable for Jordan than Duncan. Yes, Howard is stronger, faster and more explosive than Duncan at this stage his career, and he also plays with his back to the basket with moves that are robotic and predictable relative to Duncan. Thus, the assignment could potentially be easier from a defensive standpoint. Also, both Jordan and Griffin will need to make a concerted effort to keep Howard off the boards.
Also, we hope both Doc Rivers and Houston Head Coach Kevin McHale will do without the "hack-a" strategy for poor free throw shooters.
The Houston Rockets are the 2nd seed in the Western Conference and have a lethal scoring machine in James “The Beard” Harden. He’s averaging 28 points per game in the playoffs and nearly eight assists as well, which is very good for a shooting guard although Harden is the primary ball-handler in the Rockets’ system.
Many would hypothesize his high-scoring prowess is the result of a deft touch from beyond the arc, but a great deal of his scoring comes from the free throw line as he is averaging 10 free throws per game. No one on the Clippers roster has a chance of slowing him down, and so-called defensive stopper Matt Barnes will be little more than a distraction for Harden on a good day. It’s a foregone conclusion that nobody is going to be able to stop him, but the rest of the Rockets are not so stellar as to present a serious threat to the Clippers starters. However, the Los Angeles bench is bleached bones in the desert once you get past shooting guard Jamal Crawford and power forward Glenn Davis.
Houston has a clear advantage with depth but the Clippers have more play makers overall.
Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers will look to inspire his team to rise above what critics thought they could be in pursuit of a birth in the Western Conference Finals for the first time in team history. The offense is a given for Los Angeles, but rebounding and perimeter defense are what will carry them over the top. Paul is an eventual Hall of Fame player, and the severity of his hamstring tweak is likely exaggerated. To that end, I've got the Los Angeles Clippers taking the Houston Rockets to seven games.