It was just a couple months ago that the “Save Vinny’s Job” homestand began for the Los Angeles Clippers. They returned home reeling from a seven-point road loss against New Orleans, the worst team in the West, and had lost eight of 12. What has happened since has been the second renaissance of the former laughingstocks of Los Angeles, and Del Negro coached his kiester off in Game 7 of the first round against the Memphis Grizzlies, riding the players who were hot — whether it was Eric Bledsoe instead of Chris Paul, or Reggie Evans/Kenyon Martin instead of Blake Griffin, in the fourth quarter of a Game 7 road win at Memphis that put the Clippers into the second round for just the third time in the franchise’s 41-year history.
Did Del Negro acquit himself well enough to have the option year on his contract for next season picked up? No word on that yet from mercurial owner Donald J. Sterling, but you’d have to believe it is coming. In the meantime, Del Negro has to take his tired, banged-up Clips into San Antonio to face a team that hasn’t lost a game since April 11 — well more than a month ago. The Spurs made short work of the Utah Jazz in the first round and then waited and watched as the Grizzlies won Games 5 and 6 to send the series to a deciding seventh game. They’ll finally be back in action Tuesday night for their first game in eight days. What will decide this series? Who will win? Here are five key factors, plus predictions from the staff of SheridanHoops.com.
- THE DEPTH FACTOR — Yes, it was quite a sight to see with Griffin wearing his warmups as Evans and Martin did the dirty work in the wrestling match that was Game 7 against Memphis. And it showed that one of the common criticisms of the Clippers was invalid. But was Del Negro’s sudden bench love an aberration or a sign of things to come? On that we’ll have to wait and see. With the Spurs, it’s something we’ve seen night-in and night-out since the end of December. San Antonio’s bench produced 40 or more points in each of their four victories over the Jazz. In Game 4, Manu Ginobili came off the bench to score a team-high 17 points, and no San Antonio starter had more than 11. It was the first time in the NBA’s last 591 playoff games in which no starter on the winning team scored 12 points.
- THE EXPERIENCE FACTOR: When the ball goes up Tuesday night for the opening tip, Tim Duncan will be playing in his 181st career playoff game, Tony Parker, all of 29 years old, will be playing in his 143rd. Between them they have four NBA Finals MVP awards. And then there is coach Gregg Popovich, who will be guiding his team in a postseason game for the 185th time (he has a career winning percentage of 60 percent). Del Negro will be in the second round for the first time in his coaching career after failing to get the Chicago Bulls out of the first round twice during his two-year stint with the Bulls. If he wants to lean on a player for whom this playoff stuff is old hat, it will be Martin, who will reach 100 career playoff games during this series.
- THE POINT GUARD FACTOR: This is going to be the best battle-within-a-battle during this series. Both Tony Parker and Chris Paul are lightning quick, both were such keys to their teams’ success that they garnered a few of the first-place MVP votes that did not go to LeBron James or Kevin Durant, and both are active defenders with quick hands — Paul led the NBA with 2.53 steals per game. It will be imperative for Paul to continue to create turnovers and transition opportunities that will allow the Clippers to get out in the open court and let Griffin do his Lob City thing. If this becomes a battle of half-court sets, Los Angeles stands no chance against a Spurs team that has become an offensive efficiency machine (they were 2nd in the NBA in scoring at 103.7 points per game.)
- THE BOO-HOO GRIFFIN FACTOR: The NBA leader in commercial endorsements and gravity-defying dunks has been getting clobbered when he leaves his feet, and he hasn’t been all that happy about it. Guess what, Blake? It isn’t going to get any easier as your career goes on, and staring down the referees and pouting isn’t going to make the situation better. The Spurs will burn fouls to put Griffin on the line, where he is a notoriously poor free throw shooter — 52 percent during the regular season, 59 percent for his career. And if necessary, the Spurs will also burn fouls to send DeAndre Jordan (44 percent) and Reggie Evans (52 percent) to the line. “Hack-a-Clip” may enter the basketball lexicon in this series if the Spurs somehow find themselves playing from behind.
- THE TRUTH FACTOR: We hold these truths to be self-evident: The Spurs are just better. They open this series on a 14-game winning streak, and they had two 11-game winning streaks during the regular season. Statistically, the Spurs have advantages everywhere: Points per game, 103.7 to 97.5. Field-goal percentage: .478 to .455. Rebounds per game: 43.0 to 41.6. Assists per game: 23.2 to 21.0. Free-throw percentage: .748 to .680. Three-point field goal percentage: .393 to .357.
SHERIDAN: Spurs in 4.
HUBBARD: Spurs in 5.
HEISLER: Spurs in 6.
BERNUCCA: Spurs in 5.
HAMILTON: Spurs in 5.
PERKINS: Spurs in 6.
ZAGORIA: Spurs in 5.
PARK: Clippers in 7.