I've been to several hundred Los Angeles Clippers games since they've moved to STAPLES Center, including games from nine different playoff series. I have never seen an atmosphere like Game 7 against the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday. The place was completely electric.
And the game justified the frenzied atmosphere. The Spurs opened by making nine of their first twelve shots -- and they got an offensive rebound on one of the three misses, establishing a game long trend. Despite San Antonio's white hot start, the Clippers took the punches and hit right back. After scoring 19 points on eleven trips, the Spurs held a 19-11 advantage, which would turn out to be the largest lead of the game for either team. The Clippers then scored nine straight to take the lead back -- and that would turn out to be the longest scoring streak for either team the entire game. NBA basketball is typically a game of runs and momentum -- one team builds a nice lead, the other team goes on a run. For the margin to remain in single digits for the entire 48 minutes is exceedingly rare, but quite fitting for this series where neither team could get any separation from the other.
If you'll recall, the first thing I said about this series was how it was a shame that these teams were meeting in the first round. Every metric available tells us that these are two of the three best teams in the NBA; not just in the Western Conference, in the NBA. One of them had to lose -- it turned out to be the Spurs. In a perfect world, the winner of this series would be heading to the NBA Finals now, but sadly it doesn't work that way.
I'm obviously happy that the Clippers are the ones moving on; but in a perverse way, I'm disappointed to be missing out on the idiotic commentary we'd be hearing now had the Clippers lost that game by two points rather than winning it by two points. I'm weird that way. The narrative would obviously have been "Clippers fail to get out of first round again" -- as if the quality of the opponent is irrelevant in the discussion.
But they didn't lose -- they won.
Plenty has been said about the heroic performance of Chris Paul -- I don't need to add more to that, other than to say that I am old enough to remember the Willis Reed game. Reed was hurt worse, limping more -- but Reed's presence was primarily a source of inspiration and he managed to make a couple of plays; he was by no means dominant. Paul was playing on one leg -- and turned in one of the great performances in playoff history. It was unbelievable, and let's hope it quells the "can't win the big one" talk at least for a while.
The question is, did the Clippers win the battle but lose the war? It's one thing to ride a wave of adrenaline, ignore the pain and gut out one game. It's quite another to play at a high level for four or seven games with a sore hammie.
Longtime readers know of my affection for the Phoenix teams of the late 80s. Kevin Johnson is possibly my favorite player of all time, and he was incredible when he was at his peak. In the 1990 playoffs the pre-Barkley Suns were at their absolute best, facing the Clyde Drexler Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals. But Johnson suffered a hamstring pull in the series, and although he played, he was severely limited the rest of the way and the Suns lost. (As it happens, Johnson was never quite the same player and continued to struggle with hamstring issues for the rest of his career.)
Paul is a very different player than Johnson, who relied heavily on his quickness and athleticism (the Suns used to throw lobs to Johnson). Obviously we have little clue exactly how severe Paul's injury is, and we certainly can't make a direct comparison between his injury and someone else's -- but hamstrings are notoriously finicky and can be slow to heal, even with modern treatments.
Doc Rivers speculated (and I believe it was just that, speculation) that Paul might need to miss Game 1. He might. Or he might need to miss Games 1 and 2. Or he might need to shut it down and get better. But he won't, because it's the post-season and he's going to play, so the real question is how much will the injury limit him?
Doc is mentioning Game 1 only because in the reality of a seven game series where the Clippers are opening on the road, on two days rest while the Rockets have been off for nearly a week, Game 1 is already pretty close to a lost cause. Doc knows that the Clippers only need to win once in Houston in order to steal homecourt advantage, and that Game 1 is the least likely one to win. If Paul rests Monday night, it will be with the goal of going all out on Wednesday and trying to get the win.
Will three days rest be enough to see Paul at his best? Again, it's impossible to say at this point. It would of course be a shame, if Paul were to be less one hundred percent against Houston, but it is what it is. With a fully healthy Paul, I do not fear the Rockets one bit -- with a limited Paul, it is of course a very different story.
I will however remind you of something else I said recently. After Game 5 of the Spurs series, when the Clippers were down 3-2 to the defending champs, I said "Don't count the Clippers out."