Normally, we have to sit back and wait for the NBA Playoffs to warm up. But this year, we just might have been treated to the best series of the entire playoffs in the first round.
As the Conference Finals approach, it’s a shame that the classic matchup between the Los Angeles Clippers and the San Antonio Spurs did not garner the attention that it deserved, especially with a classic Game 7 that was played on the same evening as the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight.
The Clippers sprinted into the post-season having won 14 of their final 15 games. The Spurs matched that dominance while winning 11 of their last 12. The series had the feel of a Conference Final, given the star wattage on the floor. No other series this year, including the Finals, will quite match the talent that this one boasted, with both squads capable of playing elite basketball on both ends of the court.
The reigning Most Valuable Player of the NBA Finals, Kawhi Leonard, was there. Three of the league’s top defensive players, Leonard, Tim Duncan and DeAndre Jordan, were on the court at the same time. Two of the league’s best point guards of the modern generation, Chris Paul and Tony Parker, were matched up. And two of the NBA's very best young players, who both have a chance to carve a special place in the history of the game in the years ahead, Leonard and Blake Griffin, were in the mix as well.
The series also provided two franchises in stark contrast, with San Antonio’s consistent dominance, multiple titles and absurd standard of excellence being pitted against an organization whose familiarity, throughout its history, with failure and idiotic ownership has been well-documented.
Despite Chris Paul, widely considered the league’s best point guard over the past decade, putting together an individual Hall of Fame resume, the whispers were starting to escalate towards a loud rebuke of his supremacy because he’d never led a team to the Conference Finals.
But after his Game 1 performance in Los Angeles, Paul proved determined to exorcise those demons. He scored 32 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out six assists. Griffin’s 26 points, 12 boards, six assists, three steals and three blocked shots were emblematic of his ever-expanding skills.
San Antonio answered with back-to-back wins before the Clippers evened things up with a Game 4 victory.
Game 5 was an instant classic, with Los Angeles exploding out of the gate early, the Spurs answering with a 15-0 run to end the first quarter, and then both teams exchanging Tyson-blows throughout the remainder of the game.
157-year-old Tim Duncan collected 21 points and 11 rebounds in the 111-107 Spurs victory. Blake Griffin’s 32-point, 14-rebound and seven-assist masterpiece was marred by a moment of brain flatulence by DeAndre Jordan when he was called for offensive goaltending on a Griffin shot in the game’s final moments.
But the Clippers came out swinging in Game 6 behind Paul’s 19 points and 15 assists and Griffin’s 26 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and four blocks, winning on the road, 102-96, to force a winner-take-all Game 7.
That Game 7 could ultimately prove to be one of Paul’s career-defining moments, especially if they can dust off the Houston Rockets and advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time ever in franchise history.
We must not forget the expectations that accompanied Chris Paul’s arrival in Los Angeles four years ago. Fair or not, he was seen as the player that would lead them to where they’d never been, elevating the Clippers from being a malodorous step-cousin of the Lakers to a marquee franchise.
But in the first quarter of Game 7, it looked as if he was once again headed for an early playoff exit when he sustained a hamstring injury in the second quarter. He sat out for about ten minutes and when reinserted into the game, was clearly hobbling like Verbal Kint in the Usual Suspects.
He couldn’t force his way through screens and had no bounce or bursts of speed off the dribble, but he did still have plenty of guile, smarts and a delectable old-man game (no speed or hops required) to depend on when necessary. His 27 points, where he connected on nine of his 13 shot attempts, and six assists on one leg in the Clippers 111-109 victory, which included the game-winning shot with one second remaining, sent the defending champion Spurs home.
There were 31 lead changes in the game, and the back-and-forth concentration of clutch shots down the stretch was a basketball fan’s dream. Every time the Spurs seemed poised to seal the game, the Clippers fought back. Paul not only confounded the game’s best perimeter defender, Kawhi Leonard, all night, but he converted his career-defining shot over one of the best defensive players ever in Tim Duncan.
It was a fantastic moment for long-suffering Clippers fans, in addition to the team’s players and coaches. And despite bowing out in the first round a year after winning the championship, there was no shame in San Antonio’s playoff performance.
It made no sense for two teams that were that good to be matched up in the first round anyway.
Anything else we might see for the remainder of this post-season could be anti-climactic. With the Spurs and the Clippers being among the teams out west with a legitimate chance of knocking off the #1-seed Warriors, it’s a shame that one of them had to be knocked out in the first round.
I hope you were paying attention when the playoffs first started. Because I doubt we’ll see anything in the Conference Finals or the Championship series that will top what the Clippers and the Spurs gave us.