Before you rush to judgement, mark my words: The L.A. Clippers will defeat the San Antonio Spurs and advance to the Western Conference Finals. Before you decide to blindly take every NBA analysts' series prediction, dive into this preview head first and soak it all up; internalize the rationale behind the bold statement.
The Clippers played the Spurs three times this season, winning only one of three. The first time they played, however, was the third day of the season, which was exactly two weeks after Chris Paul had been introduced as a Clipper.
The Spurs pounded the newly formed Clippers in San Antonio 115-90. Remember though that the Lakers' younger brother formed its squad on the fly and quickly came together as a unit over the last two months of the season.
Up until the NBA All-Star break, Ryan Gomes averaged 17 minutes per game as the only backup small forward to Caron Butler. Since February 22nd? He has logged a total of nine minutes, and yes that includes the playoffs.
After the Clippers signed Bobby Simmons and then traded Brian Cook for Nick Young, Gomes has been relegated to cheerleader duty (albeit, an expensive cheerleader at $4 million). And if you remember correctly, Mr. Gomes is almost fully responsible for one of the Clippers' two losses to the Spurs this season after delivering one of the most ill-advised inbounds passes of his career.
One of the biggest weaknesses for the Clippers all season long was their inconsistent bench. But because the bench has been formed over the course of the regular season, their recent production must carry more weight than regular season rankings.
Take for example the Clippers' most recent Game 7: The Clippers bench scored 25 of the team's 27 fourth quarter points en route to their first victory in franchise history in a Game 7. The newly dubbed "Goon Squad" will prove to be an integral piece of the second-round series with San Antonio, as the Spurs also possess one of, if not, the deepest team in the league.
Quick Note: Blake Griffin, even if he is only "75-80%" entering this series, has completely manhandled the Spurs this season, posting averages of 22 points and 13 rebounds while shooting 61% from the field.
The Spurs are no longer the defensive juggernaut they have been in years past as they now rely on their scoring punch to win games. The Clippers were able to win a defensive, grind it out series against a Grizzlies team that finished in the top five in points allowed. They proved that they can win despite the shortcomings of their coaching staff.
With effort and intensity on the defensive end, this Clippers team can truly defeat anyone. Most critics point to their inefficient half-court offensive game-plan, reminding the fan world that they rely too heavily on the fast break to score. What they fail to mention is that those buckets are a direct result of great defense.
And we all know that over-used and completely cliche mantra: "Defense wins championships."
Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin provide the Clippers with some much needed toughness and energy every time they hit the floor. They play defense every possession as if they are trailing by one with under a minute remaining. They hit the glass and run the break because they know there is no opponent that can slow them down.
Bledsoe has the benefit of playing alongside great shooters in Mo Williams and Nick Young, giving him plenty of room to operate in the center of the court. In order to be a championship caliber team, your bench needs to produce night in and night out. Specifically on the road.
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin combine to give the Clippers enough star power to compete with the likes of Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. Preventing a Manu Ginobili takeover will prove to be the determining factor defensively this series. Remember, the Clippers have proved they can bottle up a proven scorer off the bench last series as they held O.J. Mayo completely in check (27% FG / 29% 3PFG).
The Clippers held the Grizzlies to only 91 points per game in the first round. The Spurs averaged 102 points per contest in their four game sweep of the Jazz and they did it with penetration from the point guard position and precision passing from pretty much everyone. Paul and Bledsoe will find a way to keep Tony Parker in front of them because they know how dangerous he is when he finds the paint.
DeAndre Jordan will be the determining factor, the X-factor, of the series. He might as well have been invisible in his first taste of playoff action because he was rendered completely ineffective when matched up with the multi-talented Marc Gasol. Lucky for him the Spurs lack a true center and he will have an athletic advantage over anyone they throw at him.
If the Clippers are to continue their defensive prowess this series, he will prove pivotal to their success. Defensive rebounding and blocking shots begins and ends with Jordan.
Just as the Memphis Grizzlies proved a matchup nightmare for the top seeded Spurs last year, the Clippers will send them packing early this year.
Yell at me in caps, tell me my prediction is ludicrous, but just remember that you heard it here first.
Clippers over Spurs in six.