San Antonio Spurs Have the Look of a Champion After Rallying Past Clippers

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San Antonio Spurs Have the Look of a Champion After Rallying Past Clippers
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In the span of a few hours, the L.A. Clippers went from rolling to reeling.

The San Antonio Spurs trailed by 24 in the second quarter at Staples Center then trounced the gassed challengers the rest of the way.

Rallying past the Clippers for a 96-86 victory and a crippling 3-0 series lead wasn’t much of a challenge after all.

I’ve seen enough, and now I believe.

Tony Parker danced his way to the basket. He shook off an L.A. defense determined to shadow his every move. He shimmied until he created enough space to drill an off-balance jump shot. He swished a three with Chris Paul running at him, desperate to delay the inevitable.

When the final horn signaled the merciful end of a two-and-a-half quarter assault, Paul and Blake Griffin limped off the court, licked their considerable wounds and lamented the approaching end of a season.

A spooked Vinny Del Negro headed for the locker room, and perhaps as soon as this summer, the unemployment line. He had the look of a trembling man stuck at the intersection of two horror flicks, speechless and aghast after consecutive visits from the clown in Stephen King’s It and the demonized child from The Exorcist.

Parker tallied 23 points and 10 assists, and Tim Duncan continued his throwback postseason efficiency with a monster 19-point, 13-rebound, 3-block effort.

New idea for an NBA ad: Replace the terrifying image of Jack Nicholson’s face peaking through a broken bathroom door with a grinning Parker.

“Here’s Tony!”

It would scare the daylights out of the finished Clippers.

If L.A. survives tonight, a sketchy proposition for a banged-up team short on rest, its flickering hopes will die Tuesday in San Antonio.

Maybe the Clippers steal Game 4 for pride’s sake. Then again, the Utah Jazz attempted to do the same thing, and trailed in that elimination contest by as many 21 points in the fourth quarter.

Moments after the Spurs completed one of the largest comebacks in NBA playoff history, a stone-faced Gregg Popovich grudgingly sat behind the podium and blessed a room full of inquisitive hoops scribes with succinct, sometimes monosyllabic answers drenched in vagueness and vexation.

“What makes you guys so good?” one writer asked.

“I have no idea,” the coach replied, in a manner that suggested he’d rather watch paint dry than soak up the adulation that accompanies a 17-game winning streak.

That, of course, is his signature press conference style. His often-blank face tells casual fans nothing about the outcome. Did the Spurs lose by 20 or win by that much?

Not once did the corners of his mouth turn in a direction that suggested a smile or any other revealing expression was imminent.

Popovich also acknowledged something that should lessen the outrage, snickers and questions some pundits and Lob City followers will direct at Paul if his team gets swept. One of the league’s best floor generals has been hampered by a significant ailment from the start of this series.

The strained right hip flexor he suffered May 10 continues to limit his explosiveness when he tries to bombard the basket to either finish or set up teammates with kick-out passes.

Paul needs time to recuperate that will never come. His Clippers vanquished the Memphis Grizzlies in a gutsy Game 7 triumph at the FedEx Forum then had to open the second round in San Antonio almost 48 hours later.

CP3’s shooting in the three affairs: 3-of-13, 4-of-9 and 5-of-17.

The Spurs turned their week-long respite after sweeping the Jazz into a decisive advantage.

Caron Butler fractured his left hand in a once bittersweet rally from 27 down in Game 1 at Memphis. He refused surgery then and has toughed it out since. Manu Ginobili can relate to Butler’s pain.

He may have competed in last year’s conference quarterfinals against the Grizzlies with a broken arm.

He broke his left hand Jan. 2 and missed the equivalent of a month and a half.

San Antonio is tougher because of it.

Even Butler, nicknamed “Tough Juice,” cannot dispute that.

L.A. led 33-11 after one period. When an unattended Nick Young caught a pass from Griffin and drained a three, the Clippers cushion ballooned to 24.

The score with 9:17 remaining in the second quarter—and no one could make this up—was 40-16, all Hollywood, all hell about to break loose.

Instead of folding up the tent and leaving the campsite to refocus for tonight’s match, the stouthearted Spurs raided their tool kit to find any instrument possible that might help them chip away at a 24-point deficit.

Matt Bonner hit a three-pointer. Gary Neal converted 1-of-2 free throws. Kawhi Leonard hit a floater. Duncan then made his first basket of the afternoon, also a floater. He bagged a tough turnaround jumper 40 seconds later.

He sank a pair of foul shots.

Ginobili nailed a triple. Duncan and Ginobili converted successive layups.

Parker willed in a floater then made two free throws.

Ginobili found Boris Diaw for a wide open three-pointer. Parker hit two more free throws.

After that eight-minute stretch, the Spurs trailed by just 10, and a gut-wrenching collapse became a certainty for the Clippers.

By halftime, San Antonio sported the collective look of a squad determined to squash all hope.

Parker was right when he said Friday, “We’re not unbeatable.”

The Spurs will lose a game at some point. If not tonight, then in the next round versus the L.A. Lakers or Oklahoma City Thunder.

What opponent, though, can take four of seven from this deep, unflinching bunch? The Spurs may prove harder to kill than Steven Segal.

The Lakers-Thunder series has become a contentious slugfest. Let those two foes trade blows to the point of exhaustion.

Parker, Ginobili and Duncan will understand and embrace the wisdom of not prolonging a thus far one-sided fight with the Clippers.

That Leonard fella? He seems to get things a 20-year-old rookie shouldn’t on this stage with so much at stake.

Charles Barkley called him “Kwame Leonard” on a TNT telecast last week. Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge tweeted Saturday that the rookie was a solid player but called him “Kuwait Lenard.”

Kwame. Kuwait. Kawhi. Whatever. By any first name, this young man can ball.

I’ve seen enough, and I believe I am looking at a champion.

OKC will come hard with freakish athleticism and three superstar talents with the world in front of them. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are three of the NBA’s toughest covers, and they suit up for the same dynamic unit.

Yet, the Spurs will know how to respond when the Thunder’s crunch-time offense devolves into a dribble-down-the-clock, hoist-a-jumpshot festival.

San Antonio won twice at Energy Solutions Arena in the first round. Ask Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson if that building gets loud in the postseason.

The Spurs emerged from a 24-point hole Saturday at a rocking Staples Center.

They can handle the ballyhooed bedlam at Chesapeake Energy Arena at least once.

That, of course, only matters if the Thunder eliminates the Lakers and swipes one of the first two games in the Alamo City.

The Spurs secured home-court advantage in every possible series through the NBA Finals when the Philadelphia 76ers polished off the top-seeded, but Derrick Rose-less, Chicago Bulls on May 10.

If the Lakers erase a 2-0 deficit and discharge the Thunder, pundits will bandy and bark about L.A.’s massive size advantage.

Just understand this: Utah, a team that was supposedly bigger, was outscored in the paint in one game by more than 30.

The Spurs outscored the Clippers, 50-18, in the paint Thursday night.

I hope Andrew Bynum is ready to “shoot the ball like [bleep]” again. He’s been doing a fine job so far, clanking 42 percent of his attempts against OKC despite spending so much time inches away from the basket.

ESPN scribe Israel Gutierrez wrote this week that San Antonio winning a fifth title was “fiction” because he would rather pick a team “with a potentially dominant defense.”

Saturday marked the fourth time in these playoffs the Spurs held the Jazz or Clippers without a basket for eight-plus minutes.

Eight minutes! Four times!

I don’t care what the regular-season or advanced postseason stats say. I’ve seen enough.

The Miami Heat boasts two transcendent, world-class performers in Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. If Chris Bosh returns by then, Miami can trot out a prodigious trio that rivals any an opponent might field.

The Boston Celtics have not lost at the AT&T Center since 2006.

The Indiana Pacers and Sixers would not roll over, either.

I don’t care. I’ve seen enough to believe these Spurs can handle anything and everyone.

If they stay healthy and Ginobili rediscovers an elusive groove, they have the stuff to win it all. No one should doubt that now.

I’m not sure why it took me this long to publish that.

Just replace Jack Nicholson’s deranged face with Popovich’s, and the altered line in the ad will make sense. “Here’s San Antonio!”

The best reason to postulate in Pop’s ballclub: If he read this column, he would find me, deliver an unmatched evil stare then fight the urge to slap me silly.

After all, he has “no idea” why his squad is so good.

The key cogs, most notably Parker, insist they are unimpressed with 17-straight victories, and they seem sincere.

The Spurs need nine more Ws to finish this campaign the right way.

I not only believe they can, I now believe they will.

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