Riding high on a 5 game winning streak that leaves them 7-2 and in first place in the division, the Clippers face a brutal 4-game road trip that starts with one of the toughest games of the season: in San Antonio.
The Spurs have been magnificent for as long as I can remember (literally), and that's not changing this year. San Antonio is 8-2 this year and they've had a winning percentage of over 60% every year since the 1998 season (including four championships during that span). For a little reference, last year was the Clippers' first ever season with such a record.
So there's that.
Fortunately for the historically-challenged visitors from Los Angeles, the teams' records in the 20th century won't matter Monday night when these teams clash in the AT&T Center. What will matter more is how these teams have performed against each other last year and so far this year, ever since Chris Paul has joined the Clippers.
The story starts tragically for Clippers fans, in an overtime loss on February 18th of this year that was decided, ultimately, by one Ryan Gomes. The Clippers were up by 3 with 9 seconds left and the ball. Ryan Gomes came in frozen off the bench to inbound the ball. He passed it to Chris Paul, who threw the ball up to avoid a backcourt violation. Gary Neal caught the ball, nailed a three, and the discouraged Clippers fell short as Blake Griffin fouled out in overtime and lost by three.
There were bright spots in this game, despite the heartbreaking loss. Blake Griffin had a spectacular performance with 22 points and 20 rebounds. The Clippers won the rebounding battle and Randy Foye hit four threes. Even DeAndre Jordan had a solid game with 8 points and 8 boards. Despite Chris Paul shooting a miserable 6-19 from the field, the Clippers still had the game well in hand with 9 seconds left.
Despite a loss on the night, the Clippers surely had reasons to feel good about this game.
And when these teams met again in March, Tony Parker didn't play. CP3 capitalized against a favorable matchup with Gary Neal, scoring 36 points to go along with 11 assists, 4 rebounds, and 4 steals. Mo Williams, who was invisible in the first meeting, went off for 33 points on 19 shots as he hit 7 threes off the bench for the Clippers. But, just as those two had transcendent performances, Jordan only had 2 points and 3 rebounds in 5 minutes as he was severely limited by foul trouble. In the end, this game was just as flukey as the first game between these squads. The Clippers walked away with a 120-108 victory, but it was not indicative of what was to come.
When these teams met in the second round of the playoffs, the Spurs wouldn't even blink, sweeping the Clippers 4 games to none by an average of over 10 points a game. Games 3 and 4 in Los Angeles were slightly closer, as the Clippers jumped out to an early lead in Game 3 that they would relinquish in the second half and lost by only 3 in the season finale.
Blake Griffin would average 21 points and 8 rebounds in the series, but after 192 minutes the Spurs would advance and as much as I would like to be biased, it wasn't even close. 6 games later San Antonio would be dispatched by the Oklahoma City Thunder, and both these teams would take a long break from the game before reconvening under a month ago today.
Even though the Spurs ran away with the series, it's hard to use it as a true indicator of which team is better in the 2012-2013 campaign. Both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were banged up and Chauncey Billups wasn't playing. And, while the Spurs are mostly the same team as last season, the Clippers have completely revamped their bench, almost undeniably for the better.
Once they were back to the grind, it didn't take these teams long to find each other again: the Spurs came into Staples Center just a week into the season to challenge the 2-2 Clippers. Despite the Spurs perfect record at 4-0, they would have a flat game against the pressure of the Clippers defense, only shooting 41% from the field and turning the ball over an uncharacteristic 20 times. Blake Griffin would have a solid game with 22 points and 10 rebounds on 10-16 shooting, while Chris Paul had 10 points and 12 assists on 8 shots. Off of the bench, Eric Bledsoe had 15 points and 5 assists while Clippers leading scorer Jamal Crawford only mustered 10 points, less than half of his season average. Willie Green made all 5 of his shots while Matt Barnes stuffed the box score with 12 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals. The star of the game, however, was young DeAndre Jordan, who had 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 blocks on 10-12 shooting. This game was the first and is, to date, the only night where DJ and Blake both had 20/10 performances. Both teams shut the game down early, resting their starters, as the Clippers ran away 106-84.
And, as if these teams didn't know each other well enough already, they're about to face off again tomorrow in San Antonio. And, as if this matchup didn't need more fogginess around it, this game will again not be a true indicator of these two teams' head-to-head abilities. The Clippers are still without starter Chauncey Billups and key reserve Grant Hill, while the Spurs will be without starter Kawhi Leonard and backup guard Gary Neal is day-to-day.
Either way, even if this game won't be important looking forward between these two teams, it's important now. The Clippers win against the Spurs under two weeks ago sparked a 5 game win streak that Los Angeles is still riding, and they trail San Antonio by only half a game in the conference standings (Clippers 7-2 are, Spurs 8-2). So, if the Clippers can steal this game on the road, they will move into second place in the conference behind Memphis. The Grizzlies only loss? To the Clippers.
Like it always is in this matchup, it'll be interesting. And, hopefully, the Clippers will head into Oklahoma City on Wednesday in either first or second in the conference standings.