SAN ANTONIO – Before tipoff of the opening game of what now seems destined to go down as one of the better first-round matchups in NBA playoff history, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers and San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich grumbled to one another with the same complaint.
Why are we playing each other … now?
"It's ridiculous that it's a first-round series," Rivers told Yahoo Sports late Thursday. "That was the first thing Pop said to me before Game 1, and I said the same thing. But we both decided, 'What the hell, it is what it is.' But this is ridiculous."
Across nearly two weeks, the Clippers-Spurs series has delivered everything as predicted: torture for its two elite coaches, entertainment for everyone else – and now a decisive Game 7 to settle it all on Saturday night at Los Angeles' Staples Center. The Clippers created the winner-take-all event with a 102-96 victory in Game 6 that left Popovich fuming about the Spurs' toughness.
"We should be embarrassed at the way we came out for a closeout game in every regard," said Popovich, who called his team's performance "soft."
The Spurs, who have won twice on the road this series, will have to take a third game in L.A. if they hope to extend their championship reign past Saturday. Looming over the night will be the possibility that two of the Spurs stars – Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili – could be playing the final game of their careers.
"We approach it like anything else," Duncan said. "We understand the pressure that's there and we understand the magnitude of the game. We understand that we can play better than what we did [Thursday night]. Hopefully, we will clean a whole lot of that up and play a much better game in this short turnaround.
"I know we are capable of it. We will be ready for it."
The Clippers will have their home crowd behind them in Game 7, but know it won't be easy to knock off the defending champions. The Spurs' core has plenty of experience, winning a Game 7 in last season's first round against the Dallas Mavericks and losing Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals to the Miami Heat.
"They're a great team in every sense of the word," Clippers forward Blake Griffin said. "I don't think you look at [another] team over the past 20 years that has been better. Duncan, the same thing with him, he's one of the best players of all time.
"They've been in this situation. They know not to panic. For us, it's about being even keel. Not getting too high, not getting too low. The same thing we've been saying for six games now."
The Clippers also won a Game 7 in the first round of last season's playoffs, beating the Golden State Warriors. To Rivers, Game 7s are "the ultimate players' game."
"I'm telling you, it comes down to make-miss," Rivers said. "If both teams are playing well, guys are going to have open shots and there is one team that is going to make them. It is nothing more than that. You just got to play the game. My job and Pop's job is to get them ready to play the game.
"The key is to not try to do too much. Stay within your zone. I've been saying that all series. Stay in your lane. Do not get out of your lane."
Rivers would have preferred this Game 7 against the Spurs come a round or two later. The Clippers and Spurs combined to win 28 of their last 31 regular-season games, finishing with 56 and 55 wins, respectively – and yet they drew each other in the opening round because the 51-win Portland Trail Blazers were given the fourth seed for winning the Northwest Division title. A loss to the New Orleans Pelicans in the final game of the regular season was enough to drop the Spurs to the sixth seed, matching them with the third-seeded Clippers.
"I don't think the division should carry weight," said Rivers, who thinks the NBA's seeding format "has to be" changed. "You can get a banner. All right, you win your division. Take the banner. If our record is better, [a division title] shouldn't supersede. That's a joke."
Only now, few on either team are laughing. Said Clippers guard Chris Paul: "Right now, it is what it is, so we have to deal with it."