Clippers (22-15) vs. San Antonio Spurs (26-12) at AT&T Center, 5:30 p.m. PT
Five storylines to track:
1. Tailspin: On its own, Chris Paul’s ill-fated pass to San Antonio Spurs guard Gary Neal for a game-tying three-pointer three weeks ago (which led to the Spurs' improbable comeback win) would have been bad enough, but what has transpired since then has been even harder for Paul and the Clippers to swallow. Since Feb. 18 the Clippers have lost six of nine games including their last two on the road. Not only are they losing games but much like they did against the Spurs, they are relinquishing late leads and losing close games. In fact, their last three losses have been by a combined five points with their last two losses being decided by just a single point.
2. The list: Longtime Clippers announcer Ralph Lawler goes up to Paul before every game in which the Clippers have an especially long losing streak against the opponent or in a building where they haven't left victorious in years. It was something Paul had asked Lawler to do earlier in the season when he was continually asked about the team's long losing streak against, well, everyone. Lawler won’t have to remind Paul of the streaks today, he has already heard them this season. The last time the Clippers won in San Antonio was 2002 and they’ve only won their once since 1997. The Clippers have also only beaten the Spurs two times overall (both in Los Angeles) since 2003. The Spurs beat the Clippers, 115-90, in the second game of the regular season back on Dec. 28.
3. Spurs connection: Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro is still a beloved figure in San Antonio, having played there for six seasons of his 12-year career. In fact, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich still uses Del Negro’s name to this day when he is coaching his team. “We actually have one thing on defense we call on the pin downs where we say we’re going to ‘Del Negro’ it and that’s in his honor and we’ve done that for 15 years,” Popovich said. “We have a ‘Del Negro’ defense out there because he couldn’t play a lick of D. At times we had to invent something just to hide him so we call it ‘Del Negro’ and you do certain things on the court and everybody has to make up for that guy who’s the ‘Del Negro’.”
4. Playoff seeding: Entering their game three weeks ago, the Clippers and Spurs were essentially tied for the No. 2 seed but since then the Spurs have held on to the second spot in the West while the Clippers have dropped to the No. 4 seed, mere percentage points ahead of the Lakers at No. 5. Despite winning 20 of the past 21 meetings with the Clippers, Popovich would rather have to face the Clippers in the postseason. “They’re a real physical team. They have a real edge. I love the edge that they have,” Popovich said. “They’ll knock the hell out of you and continue to play. It’s not just dunking the basketball but it’s knocking the hell out of you on cuts, grabbing at you and making the referees make calls, rebounding and going after it. That’s the first impression I get with these guys. Now they have the head to go with all the talent with Chris, obviously. I don’t know if there’s a better leader on the court or somebody who knows what the hell is going on at this particular time or this score or with this much time on the clock or this situation. He understands all those things intuitively and that’s a hell of a talent to add.”
5. Griffin effect: Clippers forward Blake Griffin had 28 points and 17 rebounds in the Clippers’ loss to the New Jersey Nets on Wednesday but rolled his left ankle late in the game. He will, however, start Friday against San Antonio. Popovich said the Spurs have to be aware of Griffin in transition and make contact with him early. “If you let him run free you have no shot because Chris or Mo [Williams] is going to find him and they’re going to throw it up in the air he’s going to go up in the air and you can’t get there,” Popovich said. “So you have to maintain contact with him in transition at all times. In the half court, you have help people. Do you want him going to the rim or do you want him to hit a jump shot. It’s something he works on all the time and he’s going to get better and better but given a choice you’d rather have him shooting a 20-footer than taking it the hole and you don’t have to be a genius to figure that out and he knows that and that’s why he works on his shot. Once he gets that down, he’ll be impossible. He’s ridiculous now but he’ll be impossible.”