The Los Angeles Clippers draw the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the NBA playoffs, starting with Game One of the seven-game series Sunday night at Staples Center.
Coming off their third straight 50-plus victory regular season, the Clippers are enjoying their longest string of success in franchise history, but haven’t been able to parlay that success into a deep postseason run.
Trying to accomplish that first great run becomes all the more difficult when tapped to face a Spurs squad that’s been a title contender for the better part of two decades.
Over the last three years in particular, the Spurs have never been eliminated before the Western Conference Finals, making two straight trips to the championship round. And since the start of power forward Tim Duncan’s tear through the league in the 1997-98 season, the Spurs have made the postseason every year and have suffered only three first-round exits.
The Clippers are quite aware of San Antonio’s vaunted status around the league and as the favorite in this series, despite owning a better record and the No. 3 seed in the conference compared to No. 6 for the Spurs.
But Clippers leading scorer and power forward Blake Griffin said his squad isn’t bothered by being the underdogs even though they own home court advantage throughout the first round.
"There's not a lot of series that I've been a part of where we have been picked to win in my entire career," Griffin said to ESPN Los Angeles. "As far as motivation, that's just how it is. That's how it's been. That's fine."
Griffin’s made good on his words throughout the season, averaging 21.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and a career-high 5.3 assists. But the 26-year-old exceeded those stats in three regular season matchups with San Antonio, with 25.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists.
Griffin’s joined by point guard and NBA assist leader Chris Paul, who’s making his seventh appearance in the postseason but has faced criticism for his lack of success. Paul, however, told the Los Angeles Times he just heads out to the court to compete.
"It's not a secret," Paul said. "I'm funny, man. I'm one of those people, I don't need anything to drive me. I'm going to play regardless. Win it, lose it, say I'm the best, say I'm the worst, I'm going to play."
Paul’s averaged 19.1 points, 9.0 assists and 2.2 steals in 53 postseason games, and he’s guided the Clippers out of the first round twice in the last three years. But the last time L.A. squared off with San Antonio, it was a 4-0 sweep in the conference semifinals.
This go-round the Clippers may have the edge on the inside, with center DeAndre Jordan setting new career-highs with 11.5 points and 15 rebounds a game, along with 2.2 blocks a contest and leading the NBA in shooting at 71 percent.
Coming off a loss in the regular season finale to New Orleans that snapped an 11-game winning streak, the Spurs will of course counter with Duncan, point guard Tony Parker, shooting guard Manu Ginobili and last season’s Finals MVP and small forward Kawhi Leonard.
Duncan saw his points per game slip to 13.9, the second lowest of his esteemed career, but that has less to do with his age, 38, and more to do with the ascendence of Leonard.
Now in his fourth season, Leonard led the Spurs with 16.5 points and a league-best 2.3 steals per game despite missing 18 games with a hand injury earlier this season.
Start Time: 10:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: TNT
Live Online Info: A live stream is available at TNT Overtime here
Betting Odds: The matchup opened as a pick, but the line’s moved slight to Clippers -1 via VegasInsider.com.
Over/Under: 208 points.
Prediction: L.A. over San Antonio, 101-95