Most people seem to believe the Spurs have a big advantage in their Western Conference semifinal matchup with the Clippers. After all, they're the well-rested team with championship experience. The Clips are supposedly too young and too banged up to win this series.
I think the opposite may be true.
To me, the tough, physical, grueling seven-game series that Los Angeles just played with Memphis is what playoff basketball is all about. Yes, the Clippers got dinged up Caron Butler broke a hand, Chris Paul strained his hip flexor, Blake Griffin sprained a knee but they also got battle-tested. If they're relatively healthy, I think they'll benefit from what they went through in the first round.
Playoff basketball is extremely physical, and the Spurs haven't had to play that kind of basketball yet. They didn't get tested by the Jazz in the first round. They were able to play the same up-and-down style they used in the regular season. They played 11 guys and limited the minutes of their older stars. Now they've had a full week to rest some more, but is that really such a good thing?
Rest can mean rust. If you haven't played in a while, it's hard to get up to speed quickly. I think the Clippers have a great chance to steal Game 1 in San Antonio on Tuesday. They've been playing intense, physical basketball for a while now and don't have to change their mentality. Are the Spurs mentally and physically ready? We'll see.
That leads me to another misconception about this matchup. The conventional wisdom is that these teams are very different. I think they're actually very similar.
Both teams arrived at this place and time in different ways. The Spurs' core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili has been together a long time. The Clippers were put together quickly, mainly by drafting Blake Griffin and trading for Chris Paul. But the teams have a lot in common when you look at their actual makeup.
Both are led by MVP-caliber point guards. Both have great power forwards. Both have strong benches that their coaches trust. Both have excellent 3-point shooters. Both play a fast style but can also play tough defense, as the Clippers showed the second half of the season.
Of course, you have to give the coaching advantage to Gregg Popovich. He's the Coach of the Year. He's won four championships. His experience and ability to coach in big games is unmatched, now that Phil Jackson is out of the league.
But you have to give Vinny Del Negro a lot of credit for the Clippers winning their first playoff series in six years. A lot of things went wrong against Memphis, including the injuries, but he trusted the right guys. He developed a second unit and went to them in the fourth quarters. Guys like Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans and Nick Young and Eric Bledsoe. They won the series with their toughness and energy.
Chris Paul was great, too, before he got hurt in Game 5. That's going to be the key matchup in the series, Paul vs. Parker. Parker is having his best season. For many years he led the NBA in points in the paint, so the gameplan was to play off him and keep him away from the basket. But he's become a better shooter, so he's harder to defend on the pick-and-roll. He's also become a much better passer and floor general leading his team. For sure, he's one of the elite point guards in the league.
That said, he's not Chris Paul. At his position, Paul is the best closer in the NBA. His point-guard skills passing, ball-handling and the ability to control a game are unmatched. He's an underrated shooter, just like Steve Nash was for most of his career. He's a better rebounder than Parker. (For his size, he's one of the best rebounding guards I've ever seen, harkening back to Isiah Thomas.) He's a better defender than Parker; Paul led the NBA in steals. As much as I like Parker, you have to give a slight edge to Paul.
Likewise, I give Blake Griffin a slight edge over Tim Duncan at power forward. Don't get me wrong. Duncan's one of the best ever. And even at 36 years old, he can still be the Big Fundamental when the Spurs need him. He's had a turn-back-the-clock season in some ways. At the same time, he hasn't had to carry a heavy load. Will he be able to play 35-40 minutes per game if necessary?
Griffin's knee is a concern. He wasn't himself in Games 6 and 7 against Memphis. But if he's healthier, his speed and explosiveness make him an extremely tough matchup for San Antonio. I don't think you'll see Duncan guarding him much. Griffin had a couple big games against the Spurs in the regular season and you may see double teams thrown at him. But as the series goes on, I think you'll see Griffin get better and better. His ball-handling, his intelligence and his understanding of basketball are underrated. He's also extremely tough.
Again, slight edge to L.A. here. Nothing against Parker and Duncan. But at this point in their careers, I think the stars for the Clippers are better than the stars for the Spurs.
That's why I like L.A.'s chances more than most people do. Playoff basketball often comes down to stars. If Paul and Griffin are healthy enough to play at their best, they have a great chance to win. We know what they're made of.
The Spurs are still a mystery to me. They have their championship core, plus Stephen Jackson, but they also have seven or eight young guys who have been playing key roles . How will those young guys react when they get their first real taste of playoff basketball? And will the Spurs be able to keep using 11 or 12 guys, or will they need to shorten their bench and lean on their stars?
I think it's going to be a great series. Lakers-Thunder may be the conference semifinal series that gets the most attention, but I think Spurs-Clippers will be the most interesting.