Paul and Griffin help Clippers pull away from Spurs for big Game 1 win

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 19: Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers brings the ball up court against the San Antonio Spurs in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on April 19, 2015 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 19: Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers brings the ball up court against the San Antonio Spurs in Game One of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2015 NBA Playoffs on April 19, 2015 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2015 playoff series between the West's No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers and No. 6 San Antonio Spurs has been tabbed by nearly all observers as the most competitive of the first round, with one of two contenders going home after just a few weeks. That expectation played out over the first half and much of the third quarter of Sunday's Game 1 at Staples Center before one team pulled away for a major opening-game victory.

[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]

After playing each other to a standstill for roughly 30 minutes, the Clippers used a 20-7 run over roughly five minutes of the third quarter to open up a double-digit lead and take Game 1 by the eventual score of 107-92. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were tremendous for the Clippers while the Spurs shot poorly nearly across the board.

The Clippers got out to a quality start on the strength of their excellent starting lineup, ending the first quarter with a 30-18 lead. But the Spurs almost wiped out that deficit with a 10-0 run in the first two minutes of the second quarter, proving their massive advantage in the matchup between the team's two benches and forcing the swift return of key Clippers like Paul, Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and J.J. Redick. It's that disparity that caused many pundits to pick the Spurs in this very tight series, and these few minutes did not bring cause for confidence in players like guard Austin Rivers (much-maligned son of head coach Doc Rivers) and veteran forward Hedo Turkoglu. The Spurs won their title last spring largely on the strength of their excellent depth, and it's possible that they'll take this series in the same way. That's the case both because of these head-to-head minutes and due to the Clippers' stars succumbing to fatigue from carrying such a heavy load.

In Game 1, though, those big minutes benefited Los Angeles. The Clippers built up another small lead in the second quarter, succeeding enough to convince Gregg Popovich that it was necessary to send DeAndre Jordan to the line on four consecutive possessions to change the game. Jordan missed his first three attempts but hit four of his last five to deter Popovich for the rest of the night, and the Clippers headed into the break with a 49-43 lead.

That margin remained relatively steady for the first six minutes of the third quarter. That changed over a five-minute stretch from the 5:30 to 0:40 marks of the period, when the Clippers went on a 20-7 run to turn a 59-54 score into a 79-61 lead. Blake Griffin's very loud dunks on Aron Baynes were the biggest plays from the run, but the Clippers exerted control over the game in many ways. Their defense frustrated the Spurs into contested misses, Chris Paul made all the right decisions, and players hit shots when called upon.

The Spurs cut the lead to nine points with four three-pointers in the first 4:30 of the fourth quarter, but Redick found Griffin for a lay-up out of a timeout on the next possession and the Clippers never saw the lead dip below double digits again. The final stats suggest a dominant performance. The Clippers shot 51.3 percent from the field and 10-of-18 on threes, Paul was terrific with 32 points on 13-of-20 shooting, Griffin contributed everywhere (26 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals, three blocks in 43 minutes), Jamal Crawford chipped in 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting off the bench, and no one performed so poorly as to sink the operation. Meanwhile, San Antonio saw serious troubles — they shot 36.6 percent from the field (including 17-of-37 inside eight feet) with only three notable players (Kawhi Leonard, Marco Belinelli, and Patty Mills) making over half their shots and many more experiencing borderline nightmares.

The reality was a little less overwhelming, if only because it's difficult to count the defending champs out of any game. But the teams that have troubled San Antonio in recent seasons have often had decided athletic advantages, dynamic rim protectors, and the ability to hit tough shots with some regularity. The Clippers starters — particularly Griffin, Paul, and Jordan — have those qualities, and it's tough to argue that the Spurs can easily neutralize those players in this series. They are most likely going to have win by other means, such as improved shooting, keeping top players fresh, and exploitation of their overwhelming superiority on the bench.

There is no point in counting out the Spurs after one game. Yet this loss served as a reminder that they will not win a competitive series simply because they've been there before. As ever, they must focus on and solve the unique challenge posed by the Clippers. The Spurs' supposedly ineffable aura of unstoppable professionalism exists only as long as they are able to take advantage of what they do best on the court.

- - - - - - -

Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!