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Clippers, Spurs: Elite of Elite Engage

After getting ousted by the San Antonio Spurs in a sweep three years ago, the Los Angeles Clippers take aim to pay them back. This series also illustrates a major flaw and problem in the NBA's playoff seeding structure.

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the brutal Western Conference playoff situation where either the defending champion San Antonio Spurs or the equally-as-good-this-season Los Angeles Clippers will be going home in the first round because of an antiquated seeding structure that needs to be changed as soon as possible. Despite these two teams finishing 55-plus win seasons, they will face off against each other in the first round. The last time that happened in the 3-6 matchup was in the 2008 NBA Playoffs when 3-seed San Antonio, who finished with 56 wins, faced off with 6-seed Phoenix Suns, who finished with 55 wins. In the 4-seed was the Utah Jazz, a team who finished the year with 54 wins and, based on record, was the real sixth best team in the Western Conference. Much like the Portland Trail Blazers this season. Due to this quirk, the Clippers are now the only team in the last fifteen years to play a 55-plus win team in the first round twice when they had homecourt. The other instance came in 2013 when a 56-win Clippers played a 56-win Memphis Grizzlies in the 4-5 matchup.

This series will feature the two winningest franchises in the NBA over the last three seasons.

This is a truly interesting series. It seems that most experts and computers are picking the Spurs to vanquish the Clippers. Some even expect it to be rather easy. Personally, it’s hard to say what happens in this series. One thing is for certain, though. It will be an extremely intense series between a team looking to stay at the top and a team trying to get to the top. It’ll be an extremely intense coaching matchup between the best coach in the business and a coach who is also a great X’s and O’s guy that can work officials. It features matchups across the board that are also beyond interesting and compelling in their own ways. Then there’s the vastly different benches, as far as quality is concerned, and how they both could play a major factor in deciding this entire series. But there is one thing these two teams do have in common with one another. They both respect each other a massive amount. Last year, against the Golden State Warriors, the opening round series seemed ripe with hostility and animosity that was due to boil over into a fight at any second. Not this one, though. And there’s something to be said for that.

From the way that San Antonio’s Tony Parker covertly meanders his way through the paint while defenders all around him look beyond clueless, to the way he can run the pick-and-roll by splitting it with his insane first-step quickness and moxie, to the way he handles the pressure of a larger stage against elite competition. From the way that Los Angeles’ Chris Paul expertly probes opposing defenses with a wily in-and-out dribble as he pulls up into a mid-range jumper, to the way he dashes around screens and artfully tosses the ball where only his teammate can catch it, to the way he can see an open teammate in the corner through a blizzard of defenders and make a pinpoint pass through all the traffic. This series features two of the most iconic point guards of this current generation. It features two of the most prolific and hard-to-stop ball-handling leaders in the NBA. Parker has the titles Paul wants. This series will test both men’s will like none other before it.

Beyond the point guards, you have two sweet shooting two guards who offer a variety of looks that opposing defenses have to respect. In the case of Danny Green, he perfectly sits in San Antonio’s system as the wing shooter whom teams often forget about until it’s too late to close out on him. On the defensive end, he’s there to provide a secondary defender to throw at opposing ball-handlers if Kawhi Leonard needs a rest or isn’t on the floor whatsoever. With Los Angeles’ J.J. Redick, he moves around the court like the Energizer Bunny of shooting guards and leaves a plethora of defenders in his dust as he navigates screens and angles like a stunt driver on a traffic cone course. Each one able to torch opposing defenses if left to their own devices and not properly gameplanned against.

It features two of the most prolific and hard-to-stop ball-handling leaders in the NBA. Parker has the titles Paul wants.

Obviously there’s the impending battle, when they actually guard each other, between Blake Griffin and Tim Duncan. This could be a potential "pass the torch" series in regards to those two players. The aging veteran who is still playing at extremely high level against the established but not yet embraced superstar from Hollywood. The man who is a center but also a power forward but also just an all-time great two-way player who found the Fountain of Youth for another year that allowed him to play great offensively and impact nearly every single possession defensively against the young stud who has evolved his game amidst heaps of criticism as to how good he really is and how much he can carry a team. No two ways about this. Griffin and Duncan is as close to "new age" versus "old school" as we can get right now. Only other matchup that would showcase this more is if Anthony Davis and the Pelicans played Duncan and the Spurs.

The big cloud hanging over this series, as far as health and intrigue goes, is whether or not San Antonio’s Tiago Splitter will be hampered all that much by the calf injury he’s been battling over the last couple weeks. As it currently sits, he’s listed as questionable on the injury report at this moment in time. And let’s not diminish what Splitter means to what the Spurs can do both offensively and defensively. He’s San Antonio’s main big man defender against the likes of Blake Griffin and scoring power forwards like that. Duncan has devolved his role into more of a standstill rim protector and pick-and-roll destroyer. Splitter is everything else. Without him, it’s up to Aron Baynes to keep DeAndre Jordan off of the offensive glass. Plus, without Splitter at full strength, this series could lend itself to more possessions where Duncan has to guard Griffin on the perimeter. That takes away a rim protector and lob stopper. The big man battle is the most intriguing matchup, outside of the point guard battle.

And when talking about this series and the matchups it could create, you cannot talk enough about Kawhi Leonard. The words that could be used to describe the season Leonard has had are vast and plentiful. Whether he’s using his freakishly long arms to stifle passing lanes, using his gargantuan hands to palm the ball away from people, or his ridiculously long fingers to poke the ball away, Kawhi Leonard is a freak of nature the likes of which is seldom seen on the wing. To say he’s almost a clone of Scottie Pippen would be apropos. His small forward counterpart in this series doesn’t have the length, strength, or defense that Leonard has. But what Matt Barnes lacks in physical tools right now, he makes up for in guile and cunning. While Barnes has struggled lately, he’s as capable of a breakout series as anyone if San Antonio puts Tony Parker on him and refuses to acknowledge what Barnes can do offensively.

Kawhi Leonard is a freak of nature the likes of which is seldom seen on the wing. To say he’s almost a clone of Scottie Pippen would be apropos.

There’s no doubt that the Spurs hold the distinct edge as far as benches are concerned. There’s a mammoth gulf in talent in the battle of the benches. San Antonio features a plethora of all-around talented bench guys like Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Cory Joseph, and Manu Ginobili. For the Clippers, they’re mostly relying on guys who made waves a few years ago. Players like Glen Davis, Spencer Hawes, Hedo Turkoglu, and Jamal Crawford. There’re also Lester Hudson and Austin Rivers. San Antonio holds such a massive advantage on the bench that any deficit the Clippers starters incur will most always be widened and create a difficult path back for a win.

After two grueling series last year that seemed to create more animosity than one could withstand, the Clippers and Spurs will embark upon what could be a seven game tango between two elite starting fives and two elite coaches. Whoever wins this will have earned it. You’ll most certainly hear the majority of people pick the Spurs because, well, they’re the Spurs. Everyone picks the Spurs. We’re conditioned to pick the Spurs. This series will feature the two winningest franchises in the NBA over the last three seasons. While the Spurs have rattled off a 175-71 record, the Clippers have put up a 169-77 record. In fact, it goes beyond just record. It also goes to Margin of Victory, Simple Rating System, and their identical +7.1 Net Rating marks over the last three years.

No matter who wins this series, it’ll take a valiant effort over what could be seven games of brutally tough basketball between two well-coached squads that each have their own issues. Whether the Clippers win or the Spurs win, it shouldn’t impact the absolutely sensational seasons that each one has had simply because the NBA uses an ill-advised seeding platform that they’ll most certainly need to address in the near future. You can already hear the social media vocalists and the mass media talking heads already writing their own articles about how Chris Paul and company can’t get it done. They’ve already written the Clippers off. Yet they’re overlooking that the Clippers still have a rotten taste in their mouths from three years ago. This series could be the mouthwash en route to a potential Western Conference Finals berth should they win the series after this one. For seven potential games, these two respectful opponents, often helping each other off the floor after a foul, will man the torpedoes and do battle. The winner will have earned it more than any other team that wins their first round series. That much is certain.