By Erik Malinowski
Let's cut right to the heart of the matter: These first-round playoff series have largely been a giant bummer. Nearly every matchup has been a laugher, and Thursday night started out as no exception with Chicago pummeling Milwaukee by the ridiculous score of 120-66. The nightcap, with the Los Angeles Clippers playing for their season's survival on the road in San Antonio, had the potential to be another downer.
But point guard Chris Paul, who didn't make a single field goal in the first half, hitched the Clippers to his wagon in the second half and made sure that his squad would be coming home Saturday night for a potentially epic Game 7, the 120th such occurrence in NBA playoff history. Home teams win nearly 80 percent of the time in Game 7, so just know that Mayweather-Pacquiao may end up being the day's undercard event, at least in terms of competitiveness.
"We should be embarrassed at the way we came out for a closeout game in every regard," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
In truth, there was little his team -- even though it boasts the newly crowned Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard -- could do to stop Paul in the second half. His dribble-and-step back jumper off the key was as blurry and unguardable as ever. And his seven assists (with zero turnovers) made all the difference in an overall performance that saw him account for 48 percent of the Clippers' total offense (19 points and 15 assists on 102 team points).
All of the other cast members played their parts, of course. Blake Griffin (26 points, 12 boards, four blocks) was a beast on both ends and made stops on transition defense that kept the Clippers in command late. DeAndre Jordan (15 points, 14 boards, three blocks) continued to be that third star presence that great teams rely upon to win, and J.J. Redick (19 points) made his one three-pointer -- with 3:27 left to push the Clippers' lead back to six -- count in a game-changing way.
Though home court is on their side, the Clippers will be playing their third Game 7 in the last four years. Last year, L.A. memorably dispatched an upstart Golden State Warriors in the first round, just as the Donald Sterling controversy was blowing up. Saturday's Game 7 surely won't have the emotional oomph of that contest, but it wouldn't be so hyperbolic to say this represents the biggest game in Clippers franchise history. With a chance to take the floor in front of a raucous Staples Center crowd and knock out the defending champs in a Game 7 would represent a chance to write a new chapter, a book whose preface started when Steve Ballmer officially took ownership back in August.
If you thought he looked nervous and intense for Game 6, just you wait.
The Spurs, of course, are the Spurs. They will not go quietly, not as long as Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili have a say. If they intend to keep playing through May, they best turn in a more efficient and, frankly, Spurs-like performance in Game 7.
But to do so means they'll have to stop Chris Paul, and who even knows if that's possible anymore?
Erik Malinowski is a freelance writer in the Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter @erikmal