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Clippers break through with franchise-changing victory

L.A. doesn't flinch - this time - as it takes down defending champs

POSTED: May 3, 2015 9:49 AM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper

NBA.com

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Spurs vs. Clippers, Game 7

Chris Paul scores 27, including the game-winner to lift the Clippers over the Spurs 111-109 in Game 7 of their first-round series.

— They needed this.

The win, sure. Obviously. The Clippers advanced to the Western Conference semifinals because they beat, squeezed past and out-survived the Spurs in seven games, ultimately with a 111-109 victory Saturday night in the bedlam of Staples Center.

It was more than that, though, and it really is possible to have meaning beyond a 4-3 series win and a trip to Houston for the start of the next round on Monday. That's the tangible value. But beating this opponent in this kind of series with this kind of Clippers history -- now we're talking value.

Chris Paul got hurt, Blake Griffin got in foul trouble, Glen Davis played after being listed as questionable, there was an impossibly tight fourth quarter as the final installment of an impossibly tight opening round, most of the crowd on its feet the final five or six minutes... and the Clippers did not flinch. They did not disappoint again. They beat Team Composure, the defending champions.

A lot of it was who the Clippers beat this time. A lot more was who they didn't before.

In the previous three seasons after Paul joined Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to settle Lob City, the last two with Doc Rivers hired to be the closer coach, Los Angeles had never made it out of the second round. The 2014 conference semifinals ended with back-to-back losses. The 2013 first round ended with a 2-0 lead against Memphis that turned into a 4-2 loss. The 2012 second round ended in a 4-0 sweep to the Spurs.

Three seasons, zero trips to the conference finals despite the presence of three of the best (Paul, Griffin) or better (Jordan) players at their position, and now suddenly here San Antonio was again in a San Antonio kind of series, the kind of cage match that would force a team to stay together or pack for summer.

Until there San Antonio wasn't.

We're not done. We feel like we're the best team in the playoffs. We've just got to go out and show it now.

– Clippers' Matt Barnes

"I think Doc said it earlier," said Matt Barnes, one of the Game 7 heroes with 17 points, five rebounds, two steals and two blocks in what ranks as one of the biggest showings of his 12-year career. "Our core's been together for almost four years now, and I think that's big. You go against the Spurs in the first round -- to be the best you've got to beat the best. We've had a lot of disappointments, like you mentioned, but we just feel like this has been our year. We're not done. We feel like we're the best team in the playoffs. We've just got to go out and show it now."

The Clippers made 10 of 15 shots (66.7 percent), including four of five 3-pointers, and eight of nine free throws in the fourth quarter. Paul went from being forced to the locker room in the second quarter with a strained left hamstring, with the Clippers saying he was questionable to return, to playing 20 minutes in the second half. Griffin went from picking up his third foul with 4:12 remaining in the second quarter to going all 24 the second half while getting one more personal.

A series for the ages, Rivers called it afterward, an accurate assessment at least among first-round matchups and a great tension-filled showdown for any point of the postseason. He meant for the league as a whole, so certainly, obviously, it was for the Clippers as well, easily deserving a place in the historical context of the franchise's entire West Coast era.

It felt a lot more valuable than an early-postseason win.

Inside The NBA: Spurs v Clippers, Game 7 Postgame

Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O'Neal and Nate Robinson give their reactions to the Game 7 outcome.

"Yeah," Rivers agreed, "and because of who we beat, not just because we won the first round. When you play the defending champions in the first round and you win, it gives you good belief. Now, having said all that, we're just through the first round. Somehow in the next 48 hours, I've got to get us focused on Houston. They've been sitting around waiting for us, and that's going to be a brutal task. But we have to get there somehow. I don't know how. Anybody has suggestions, send them to me. But you beat a team of value in this series, and I think the entire series was decided by seven points, I think. Like I said before the game, this is the most evenly matched series I've ever been involved in. It was crazy how evenly matched the series was."

More than a Game 7, which would have been enough in any series but especially in this one that had already been filled with drama, Saturday in an amped building in downtown Los Angeles was accompanied by the kind of potential implications that stretched far beyond a flight to Houston. The next-season kind. The roster-changing kind.

Who knows, for example, if another early playoff exit would have pushed Rivers, as head of basketball operations, and uber-emotional owner Steve Ballmer into concluding once and for all that this core can't win a championship. It hasn't so far, and losing to the Spurs would have meant going backward, from reaching the second round in 2014 to being eliminated in the first in '15, and being knocked out on their own court at that. It may have been with a hellacious draw, the Spurs with 55 wins while wearing a crown, but there comes an unforgiving bottom line at some point.

And their point guard at the end of another superstar's regular season. Paul knew from the start of the season he was taking heat -- most all the Clippers realized it -- because of the team's lack of success in the playoffs and especially because he mangled the final moments of Game 5 against the Thunder in the '14 Western Conference semifinals.

Game 7 against the Spurs now goes on the resumé too: Straining his left hamstring, leaving for the locker room, being labeled by the team as questionable to return, then finishing with 27 points and six assists against no turnovers in 37 minutes. It was his nine-foot bank with one second to go that turned a 109-109 tie into a ticket to Houston, but that was also just before Rivers said his early guess is that Paul does not play in the second-round opener Monday. There is an emphasis on preliminary, though. Besides, if this was his questionable, CP3's doubtful could be worth a triple-double.

Inside The NBA: Outlook in San Antonio

After the elimination from the postseason, Shaq, Kenny, and Nate Robinson take a look at the future of San Antonio.

The Spurs, meanwhile, were officially, not possibly, standing on the brink of change, with 10 expiring contracts. They're obviously not all going, not with Tim Duncan among the 10 while still playing at a high level and not about to leave, or be allowed to leave, the only NBA home he has known. And Kawhi Leonard is a mortal lock to return. But there is no avoiding the potential of a busy summer with only Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Kyle Anderson signed as the offseason begins.

"People ask me about Tim and Manu (Ginobili) and myself for the last five years, what we're going to do," coach Gregg Popovich said. "It's all psycho-babble. I have no clue. We'll probably come back. Paycheck's pretty good. You think I'm lying."

"If that's what he said, that's what he said," Duncan said a little while later. "I'm not making any statements thus far."

There is time. The Spurs will meet and do exit interviews, probably Monday. The same day the Clippers are playing about 200 miles to the east.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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