5 things: Clippers stave off Spurs in epic Game 7

 It’s truly a shame that this was a first-round series.

This was the best first-round matchup in recent memory. Most pundits consider these two the second- and third-best teams in the league, which explains why neither team was ever able to muster any momentum, and five of the seven games came down to the final few possessions in the fourth quarter. 

This was Conference Finals-level basketball … in the first round. 

It’s unfortunate that one of these teams had to lose and have their season end shockingly early, but luckily for the Clippers, it wasn’t them. 

There were moments when it looked like the game was going to slip from the Clippers’ grasp, like the Spurs’ collective experience and championship pedigree were going to take over. Chris Paul’s left hamstring at the end of the first quarter and Blake Griffin’s first-half foul trouble certainly didn’t help matters. 

But the Clippers hung around because of invaluable performances from their supporting cast, and it got to a point where it seemed like whichever team had the last possession was going to win the game. Chris Paul’s amazing dagger with 1 second left lifted the Clippers to a 111-109 victory, and set up a semifinals date with the No. 2 seed Houston Rockets.

In a series that had everything you could ask for — contenders, competitive games, game-winners, legacy implications — and more, Clippers coach Doc Rivers summed up the spirit of the series as well as just about anyone could.

"The last thing that I loved about this series, it was all basketball," Rivers said. "It wasn’t any crap. It wasn’t any fights. It wasn’t any — it was just two teams — think about it, playing basketball. I don’t know if there was a flagrant foul in the entire series. 

"It was clean, solid, beautiful basketball by both teams, and I’m a better person because I went through this series, I guarantee you that."

Here are five takeaways from Game 7:

Conquering his demons

No one wanted to win this series more than Chris Paul. He’s failed to make the conference finals up to this point in his career, and he just turned 30 — his prime will only last another two or three years. But this series was also personal for him. He’s clearly not the biggest fan of the Spurs, losing in seven games with the then-New Orleans Hornets in 2008, and in four games with the Clippers in 2012 (both were second-round series). The Spurs have notoriously haunted Paul, and this series seemed to be trending in that direction, especially after he injured his left hamstring. But Paul didn’t make any excuses and gutted it out, making a slew of huge plays in the fourth and ultimately winning the game for the Clippers. He conquered his demons. Next up on his playoff checklist: finally making a trip to the conference finals.

Bad News Barnes

This was probably the best game of Matt Barnes’ professional career, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Clippers badly needed their role players to step up and offset the Spurs’ depth tonight, and Barnes’ streaky shooting lended itself to a big game (17 points on 7-of-13 shooting) and a colossal 3-pointer to tie the contest at 105-105. Barnes was a thorn in the Spurs’ side. His defense on Kawhi Leonard and ability to get his hands on 50-50 balls proved vital in a one-possession game. It’s unreasonable to expect Barnes to produce like this consistently, but any time he can score in double digits, the Clips’ offense hums at a different level.

Lessons learned

The Clippers grew up during this series. They gradually stopped chirping at and blaming the refs, and were considerably less demonstrative in their complaining in Games 6 and 7. As Rivers said, this was just basketball — nothing else. That the Clips could still win without trying to get inside their opponent’s heads or playing with a lot of raw emotion shows their maturation during the regular season and, eventually, this series. "[…] Playing against them, it’s like being taught during a competition on how to act, how to play, and how to trust," Rivers said. "Just playing against them absolutely was a great lesson for us, as well."

Pumping the brakes

There are a lot of positives to take away from this series, but there are also a few things to keep an eye on moving forward. The Clippers, as constructed, can’t afford to play much small ball with Griffin as the only big man (Jordan as the only big is less than ideal but somewhat acceptable because he can at least protect the rim). The Spurs destroyed the Clips with 13 offensive rebounds, nine of which came in the fourth, when the Clips were primarily playing small. Additionally, the Clips need to clean up their defensive rotations against the Rockets, who, like the Spurs, are one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the league. Houston won’t capitalize as often on the Clips’ mistakes as the Spurs did — it seemed like every basket they had tonight was somehow wide open — but they’re dangerous when they get hot.

Houston, you have a problem

The Clippers are the favorites heading into this series. If Paul is forced to miss Game 1, and potentially more time, the matchup obviously shifts in Houston’s favor. But the Rockets are — at least on paper — a favorable opponent for the Clips. James Harden has traditionally struggled against the Clippers, DeAndre Jordan can hold his own against Dwight Howard, and L.A. has dominated the matchup over the last three Harden-led seasons (8-3 record). With that being said, the Clips are exhausted from their seven-game war, Paul’s health is uncertain, and the Rockets have home-court advantage; it’s definitely not going to be easy, and this series will likely go six or seven games.

Prediction: Clippers in 6