LOS ANGELES (AP) When the NBA finalized its playoff schedule this week, one pairing looked out of place.
The Los Angeles Clippers against the San Antonio Spurs? Players on both teams couldn’t help thinking that this matchup belongs in a conference final, not the first round.
Once the surprise wore off, this brutal way to start the playoffs sank in for two veteran teams.
”It’s just another year in the West,” Clippers guard Chris Paul said.
Indeed, the Western Conference’s superiority has led to four difficult matchups, but none more daunting than the 55-win defending champions as a No. 6 seed against a 56-win opponent thirsting for its first major postseason success.
One of these popular powers will be out of the postseason by the first weekend in May, which should only add fuel to the annual chorus of calls for the NBA to address the inequities in its playoff system.
”It was crazy this year in the West,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said. ”The conference is so good, and it’s crazy to win 11 games in a row and you finish sixth and you play the other hottest team. … We’ll have to welcome it. It’s going to be a great challenge to start on the road.”
Game 1 is Sunday night at Staples Center.
Los Angeles and San Antonio finished with two of the NBA’s top six regular-season records, and they both steamrolled into the playoffs. The Clippers won 14 of their final 15 games, while the Spurs had won 11 straight before losing their season finale.
”I’m pretty sure they’re wondering, `How did we end up with the 6 seed in the first round?”’ Clippers center DeAndre Jordan said. ”But the West is so tough. Everybody was winning.”
The Spurs had the chance to avoid this matchup Wednesday night in New Orleans, but they lost to the Pelicans. San Antonio tumbled four spots from a potential No. 2 seed, forcing them to start the playoffs on the road.
”It was disappointing, but that disappointment was gone in a second,” Tim Duncan said. ”There are a ton of games throughout the year we should have won, that would have put us in a better situation, but we didn’t. So, we are where we are, and we’re facing who we’re facing. We’re prepared for them.”
Both teams had shaken off any disappointment about their draw by the time they went to work in practice this week. The Clippers uniformly treated the matchup as a positive development, allowing them to face the Spurs before the playoff grind has worn them down.
”We’re ready to accept the challenge,” Jordan said. ”A lot of teams really don’t want to play the Spurs, but no matter what – first round, second round, conference finals – you’ve got to go through those guys anyway. It will be a big test for us, but we’re ready.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Friday that owners have talked this week about changing the playoff format, but it’s unclear whether any changes have momentum. The league plans to investigate the issue further before changing the fundamental nature of its championship chase.
Along with the Spurs-Clippers collision, owners might wish to address the conference imbalance that has left Oklahoma City outside the postseason with 45 victories, while three East teams that couldn’t even manage a winning record got the extra revenue and exposure from a playoff trip.
George Karl is among the basketball minds who have advocated for a change allowing the top 16 teams into the postseason regardless of conference or division. If that system had been in place this season, the fourth-seeded Clippers would have hosted New Orleans, while the Spurs would have drawn Toronto – and the champs still would have been the sixth seed.
”We know that we were playing pretty good basketball up until that first half in New Orleans, so we’re pretty confident about ourselves,” San Antonio’s Danny Green said. ”We know what we can do, what we have to do. It’s just going to be a tougher road.”
The Clippers have learned all about rough first rounds during their club-record four straight trips to the playoffs. They went seven games to win a first-round series in 2012 and again last season, knocking off Golden State amid the turbulence of then-owner Donald Sterling’s banishment from the NBA.
”The West is hard. There’s no passes,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. ”You just have to fight your way through it. We’re starting with the world champs, and we’ll find out if that’s good or bad.”
Associated Press freelancer Raul Dominguez contributed from San Antonio.