The San Antonio Spurs have won five of six, and their veteran core will face a key test tonight against the Lob City Los Angeles Clippers. As great as Gregg Popovich's men have been this season, defeating a fast-paced offense like that of the Clips' is always going to be a tough battle.
The fact that a San Antonio win also means a season-series split adds a bit of fireworks to the equation. Throw in that these teams could also face off in the postseason, and it becomes even more critical to watch.
Simply put, this is a matchup of youth vs. experience in the best possible way. Los Angeles is young and full of life, and has also done an excellent job of electrifying fans and possibly usurping the Lakers as the new kings of L.A.
San Antonio, on the other hand, has continued to play great basketball, despite the fact that all of their star players are over 30 and not getting any younger. They have played well in the regular season, but defeating the Clippers once again will prove that they certainly can make a lot of noise when the playoffs roll around.
Thus, if fans want a game that will be intense from start to finish, they need look no further than this one.
Time: Friday, March 29, 8:30 p.m. ET
TV: PRIME TICKET, Fox Sports Southwest
Records: Los Angeles Clippers (49-23) vs. San Antonio Spurs (54-17)
Injuries: Ronny Turiaf (knee, day-to-day) via ESPN
Key Storyline: Can Aging Spurs Fight Off Youth of Clippers?
The Spurs have home-court advantage and while that may count for something, it doesn't take away from the fact that the Clippers have already defeated them twice this season.
The first instance occurred early in the season, on Nov. 7 at the Staples Center, when the Clippers won 106-84 on the back of a combined 42 points and 21 rebounds from Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. San Antonio just had no answer for Los Angeles' feisty defense, which held the Spurs to just 41 percent from the field and forced 20 turnovers. Long story short, the Spurs looked quite old.
Round 2 was on Nov. 19 at the AT&T Center, and while the Clippers were limited to just 1-of-12 three-point shooting, 19 points and eight assists from Chris Paul proved to be enough. The Spurs just couldn't make their shots, shooting only 35 percent from the field and watching 20 points and 14 boards from Tim Duncan go to waste.
It took the third meeting, on Feb. 21, between these two teams for the Spurs to pull off a victory. Thanks to 31 points and seven assists from Tony Parker, San Antonio rolled to a 116-90 victory before a stunned Staples Center crowd.
The final round will be at the AT&T Center, and Tony Parker and rest of the Spurs must try to keep up with Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro's fast-paced game. This means containing both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin at all costs, and not letting Los Angeles shoot its way to victory. On-ball defense must be top notch, and no sloppy mistakes must be kept to a minimum.
If those goals can be met, a season series split can be achieved. If not, then there could be a lot of questions surrounding the Spurs once the playoffs officially begin.
Key Matchup: Chris Paul vs. Tony Parker
This game is going to be a battle of the point guards, with Chris Paul seeking to continue Lob City's strong season with another win over San Antonio. As his free agency draws closer, Paul has done nothing to suggest he should get anything less than a max contract.
In his second season with L.A., he is averaging 17 points, 9.6 assists and an NBA-best 2.4 steals per game, while shooting a very impressive 49 percent from the field.
Over his last five games, however, he has been even better.
Through that stretch, Paul has posted 21.6 points, 9.8 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 3.4 steals while making 55 percent of his shots. He isn't the biggest point guard, at 6'0", 175 pounds, but he is still incredibly tough to stop.
Despite that, San Antonio's Tony Parker will need to be better than Paul to help ensure a Spurs victory. He, too, has been incredible this season, posting 21 points and 7.6 assists per game while shooting an eye-popping 53 percent from the field.
But let's not forget that Parker recently missed nearly three weeks with a sprained ankle and only just returned to the lineup a week ago. However, he has been stellar in his three games since his return.
Over those three, Parker has averaged 21 points and 7.7 assists while making 50 percent of his shots.
This means that while it is important for Paul to be a key playmaker on offense, it is more important that his defense be in top form. The key to a Clippers victory will be slowing down Parker, which could mean Paul putting scoring on the back burner for the night.
If Parker can be slowed down, then Lob City should roll to another win. If not, then this game is definitely going to come down to the wire.
X-Factor: Kawhi Leonard
Defense is going to be the name of the game for both teams, which means the Spurs need second-year forward Kawhi Leonard to continue his solid sophomore season. The former San Diego State Aztec has posted 11.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game while shooting 50 percent from the field and 38 percent from downtown.
At 6'7", 225 pounds, he is easily the best athlete in this game.
But over his last five games, Leonard has been like a different player, upping his production in almost every way possible. He has posted 15.4 points and 7.6 rebounds while making 56 percent of his shots and shooting an amazing 57 percent from long range.
Against Los Angeles, Leonard simply needs to be in swingman mode. This means driving the lane and only taking threes when necessary, not to mention being a beast on defense from start to finish. By taking some of the Clippers' key shooters out of the equation, he instantly will improve San Antonio's odds of winning.
If he is off his game just one bit, or if his inexperience becomes an issue, then the Clippers will run wild over aging San Antonio.
Predicted Starting Lineups:
PG: Chris Paul
SG: Chauncey Billups
SF: Caron Butler
PF: Blake Griffin
C: DeAndre Jordan
PG: Tony Parker
SG: Danny Green
SF: Kawhi Leonard
PF: Tim Duncan
C: Tiago Splitter
This game is going to be close from start to finish, and all players involved will shine bright in their own way. Duncan will have a double-double, looking much younger than 36 years old, and even Manu Ginobili will turn in a strong scoring performance.
However, despite that, I'm picking the Clippers' fast-paced offense to run wild late in the fourth quarter, resulting in a win for Lob City.
Paul will be in full scoring point guard mode, finding multiple teammates for thunderous alley-oops as well as sinking some key shots of his own. He and Tony Parker will be in a neck-and-neck battle for most of the game, but Paul will be the last man standing at the final buzzer.
Leonard will simply be unable to stop key players like Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, and his inexperience will be exposed as the Spurs lose the season series to Los Angeles.
In the end, all that San Antonio players and fans can do is hope that the Spurs right the ship by the time the playoffs start.