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It almost seemed impossible to imagine Game 7 between the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs actually living up to the hype. I mean, how do you write an ending worthy of six games that featured so much drama, such intensity and so much excellent play by both sides?
Forty-eight minutes, 31 lead changes, 16 ties and one unforgettable performance later, I think it's safe to say we found a fitting conclusion.
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The Clippers beat the Spurs, 111-109, at Staples Center on Saturday, with point guard Chris Paul hitting an absurdly tough game-winning runner over the outstretched arm of the great Tim Duncan with one second remaining:
Paul made that drive, and that shot, on one leg.
Hell, he played the last three quarters on one leg, after pulling up lame late in the first quarter with what the Clippers would call a strained left hamstring.
After he left the game and headed to the locker room with a member of the team's training staff, the Clippers listed Paul as questionable to return.
But this was Game 7.
Paul missed just over seven minutes of game time, checking back in at the 6:27 mark of the second quarter. He couldn't play with his typical pace; at times, he looked like he could barely jog. But he still completely controlled the game, right up to and including that series-deciding leaner.
After Paul's shot, San Antonio had a chance to respond with one second left. As the Spurs came out of their timeout, though, the clock operator at Staples Center started the game clock early, running off the final second as San Antonio prepared to trigger its inbounds — essentially giving the Clippers a free look at what Gregg Popovich had drawn up in the huddle.
A furious Pop stomped his way to the scorer's table to register his displeasure. So, too, did Spurs owner Peter Holt, who chucked some choice words at the quick-trigger-fingered clock operator.
Without a timeout remaining to reset, the Spurs just started over. Matt Barnes knocked away a lob pass intended for Kawhi Leonard, providing a somewhat bizarre finish to an amazing game headlined by Paul's all-time effort.
The eight-time All-Star scored 22 of his 27 points after his return from injury, making seven of his 10 shots from the field. When he got the ball in the backcourt, he kept throwing hit-ahead passes to try to propel his teammates forward, pushing tempo by passing since he couldn't do it off the dribble.
He looked often to Blake Griffin, L.A.'s playmaking power forward, who had experienced ecstasy, agony and exhaustion in this series, playing frantically and frenetically for 41 minutes a night ... and of whom, with Paul encumbered, the Clippers would need to ask even more.
"I kept telling BG when I did whatever to my hamstring to just bring us home," Paul told TNT's Jamie Maggio after the game.
Griffin responded, scoring 24 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and dishing 10 assists — with 18 of the points, all of the rebounds and nine of the assists coming after Paul's injury — to log his second triple-double of the series and the sixth of his career.
He was the Clippers' primary offensive initiator with Paul hobbled, and their primary interior defender late, after coach Doc Rivers pulled DeAndre Jordan from the game midway through the fourth to match San Antonio by going small. Griffin promptly met a driving Leonard at the rim to force a missed layup before collecting the ball, pushing it up the court and feeding J.J. Redick for a 3.
If Blake doesn't stop the Kawhi layup, San Antonio's up five with five minutes to play. Instead, it was a tie ballgame, 97-all.
With Griffin making plays all over the floor, Paul was able to limit his scope. In the half-court, he spent much more time than usual working off the ball on the perimeter, acting as a spot-up shooter and drilling all four of his 3-point tries after his injury.
Watching those hit-ahead passes, those lock-and-load triples and those cautious moments on the ball, especially after seeming to reaggravate the hamstring midway through the third, you got the sense that Paul was pacing himself, that he was preserving what little of his burst remained for the moments when it was absolutely necessary. With 8.8 seconds left and the score knotted at 109 after a pair of Duncan free throws, it was absolutely necessary.
So he used it, dribbling hard to his right against the defense of Danny Green. As he reached the right block, Paul hit the brakes. Green kept going. Duncan came to help. Paul had just enough room to leap, lean, bank and flourish.
"On that last play, I felt [the hamstring] pretty good right there," Paul said after the game. "It was a good win for us, but we can't be done now."
There's your game, and your series, and the difference in a matchup that went down to the very last second of the very last game. Two of the five best teams in the NBA, separated by a grand total of three points over seven games ... with the Spurs actually outscoring the Clips, 724-721. So it goes.
The Clippers advance to the Western Conference semifinals to take on the Houston Rockets, who defeated the Dallas Mavericks in five games. Game 1 tips off in Houston at 9:30 p.m. ET on Monday.
The Spurs ... well, they are done now. Their championship defense came to a much earlier end than expected, thanks to the brutality of a Western Conference that sent five 55-plus-win teams to the playoffs, and the luck of the draw and twist of tiebreaker fate — and a playoff system that gave the Portland Trail Blazers the No. 4 seed because they won their division, despite winning four fewer games than the Spurs or Memphis Grizzlies — that slotted them in at No. 6 against a bear of a Clippers squad.
What could have been one more good, long summer in the sun now turns, abruptly, to future considerations. Duncan, 39, is a free agent. After the way he looked this season and in this series, you can understand the Spurs wanting to put him right back in the middle again next season. Manu Ginobili, 37, is a free agent. After the way he looked this season and in this series, you start to wonder whether we just watched the last NBA game of one of the most important international basketball players of all time.
Leonard's a restricted free agent, and the smart money says he's not going anywhere. (Still, he figures to have a long summer after shooting just 29.5 percent from the field over the final three games of the series while failing to make the sort of impact one might expect from the Defensive Player of the Year.) Green's unrestricted, and a series that showcased his highs (16 points, eight rebounds, five blocks, three assists, two steals in 35 minutes in Game 7) and his lows (his 2-for-11 Game 1, his 0-for-6 Game 4) didn't provide a definitive answer to the question of whether he's an elite 3-and-D wing irrespective of scheme and system who's worth a bundle for anyone this summer, or a perfect match of skill-set and situation who wouldn't look nearly as enticing were he not wearing silver and black.
With those contracts and others ending this summer, there's a real chance this could be the last time we see this iteration of the Spurs. Questions about that, though, would have to wait. Pop didn't have have time for them.
Pop's crew had its chances to stave off such questions for another couple of weeks. The Spurs could have finished off the Clippers in Game 6, but couldn't close; they'll rue that missed opportunity all summer long.
After starting hot in the first, making nine of their first 12 shots to take an eight-point lead midway through the first quarter — which would wind up being the largest lead either team had, as this brilliant game full of execution and performance was played primarily in a one- or two-possession phone booth that made even watching it anxiety-inducing — they could have really stepped on the Clippers during the 7 1/2 minutes they were without Paul. Ditto for the final 4:12 of the second quarter, after Griffin picked up his third foul and hit the bench for remainder of the half.
But San Antonio didn't capitalize during those pivotal stretches. When the Spurs couldn't miss early, Barnes — averaging six points per game on 36.1 percent shooting in the playoffs entering Saturday — scored 10 first-quarter points to keep things close.
While Paul was in the locker room getting treatment, Jamal Crawford carried the offense, scoring nine points on 4-for-5 shooting with two assists to keep the Spurs from running away. When Griffin was sidelined by foul trouble, Paul, Crawford and Glen Davis — himself hobbling around on the ankle he sprained during Game 6 — each hit enough shots, grabbed enough rebounds and made enough plays to send the Clippers into halftime up two.
The two teams traded short bursts after halftime. Paul hit a pair of early 3s, only to see Green answer with a pair of jumpers of his own. A Redick triple, a Griffin midranger and dunk here, answered by a Duncan leaner and a Tony Parker drive there, as the French point man — who had scarcely looked like himself this series, averaging just 9.3 points and 3.3 assists per game on 32.9 percent shooting through six games as he struggled through a number of leg injuries — kept attacking his hobbled counterpart off the dribble.
With seven seconds remaining in the third, Ginobili got referee Jason Phillips to grant him three free throws after a desperate heave while being fouled "in the act of shooting" about 60 feet away from the basket by Austin Rivers. He'd hit two of three to give San Antonio a 78-76 lead.
Paul responded by hitting this ludicrous buzzer-beating bank shot from nearly 40 feet out in the final second of the third, giving L.A. a one-point lead entering fourth:
San Antonio pushed, scrapped and clawed in the fourth quarter. Duncan once again served as an inarguable constant, scoring 10 points of his team-high 27 points in the frame; he also pulled down 11 rebounds in 37 minutes of work, marking his sixth double-double and fourth 20-10 game of the series. (Again: 39 years old.) Ginobili shook off a series full of missteps to make two huge 3-pointers and dish three assists in the fourth.
The small-ball Spurs attacked the offensive glass like men possessed, collecting nine of their 15 missed field goals in the quarter and generating 12 second-chance points. But the Spurs just didn't do enough with those chances, as Leonard (1-for-7 in the fourth), Green (1-for-4), Parker (2-for-5) and Boris Diaw (1-for-4) couldn't make enough shots to get over the hump.
L.A., on the other hand, just kept generating good possessions. Griffin went to work on the interior, going 5-for-5 from the foul line in the fourth. Redick, Paul and Barnes combined to go 4-for-4 from 3-point range in the quarter. The Clips, owners of the league's No. 1 offense during the regular season, outscored the Spurs 32-31 in the fourth, making 10 of their 15 field goals.
With the series in the balance, they were the ones finding and converting great looks. And with the chance to seize victory, the tough-minded 6-footer with the bum wheel was the one creating and converting a tough one, too.
"This was an emotional win," Paul said after the game. "That team right there is unbelievable. It's a shame that this was the first round. Our backs were against the wall time and time again, but we kept finding a way."
In his postgame press conference, Duncan heaped credit on Paul for pushing through his hamstring injury, keeping his team composed, and making that heartbreaking banker over his hand.
“He was incredible,” said Duncan. “I mean, just an unbelievable shot over two of us. It was amazing to watch.”
After the final buzzer sounded, TNT's cameras caught Paul and Duncan embracing and sharing a moment — two great competitors and friends recognizing just how much the other had put on the line for this win, and appreciating the push to go and do likewise.
"I told him how much I love him, man," Paul told Maggio after the game. "I done known Tim since I was 11 years old. Me and his nephew played on the same AAU team. Everybody always knows the Wake Forest connection, but he's been like a mentor, a big brother to me since I've been in the league.
"You hate to see that team going home, but ..."
... but somebody's got to go home, and this time of year, Job No. 1 is making sure it's not you. After coming up short against the Oklahoma City Thunder last year, and against the Grizzlies the year before, and against these Spurs the year before that, CP3 and his wounded, short-handed, explosive band of Clippers did their job.
As a result, we're about to witness a changing of the guard:
The first step to a new chapter in our history begins Sunday afternoon. After Saturday night, it's got a hell of a lot to live up to.
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