LOS ANGELES (AP) — The San Antonio Spurs have faced almost every postseason obstacle imaginable during their 18-year run of steady success.
They’ve never had their team owner banned from the NBA for life in the middle of a playoff series, though.
“Yeah, we’ve had some challenges as a team,” Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin said. “And we’re tougher because of it.”
The Clippers hope their unique experience during last year’s supremely turbulent postseason gave them some of the tenacity necessary to survive a first-round meeting with the defending NBA champions. San Antonio visits Staples Center for Game 1 on Sunday night.
A year after Donald Sterling’s public exposure for racist comments led to his banishment in the middle of their first playoff run under coach Doc Rivers, the Clippers are healthy, hungry and free of off-court distractions.
They just hope they’re prepared for the daunting challenge of knocking off the Spurs in the league’s most intriguing opening-round matchup.
“I think experience is the best teacher, and that was definitely tough,” Clippers guard Jamal Crawford said, recalling Sterling’s downfall last spring. “Playing the defending champs in the first round, that’s tough, but I think we’re up for the challenge.”
The Clippers are unlikely ever to face anything similar to the distractions they overcame last year to eliminate Golden State in a tense seven-game series. Sterling’s comments were made public early in the series, and the Clippers wore their warmup shirts inside-out before dumping them at center court in Oakland in a defiant display of unity against their team owner.
The Spurs survived their own seven-game slugfest with Dallas in the first round last spring, but lost just four more games on the way to the fifth championship for Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich.
Both teams drew a brutal opening matchup thanks to San Antonio’s loss to New Orleans on the final day of the regular season. The 55-win Spurs dropped all the way to the sixth seed, giving them a matchup with the third-seeded Clippers, who won 56 games and had the NBA’s third-best record.
“We’re starting on the road against one of the hottest teams playing right now,” Duncan said. “We’re comfortable playing on the road. We’ve been through just about every situation possible, so we have the capacity and we have the experience to be able to start a series on the road.”
While the Spurs have won five championships and reached nine conference finals in the last 18 years, the Clippers have won only four playoff series in their entire 45-year franchise history — two of those in the previous three years.
“We’re not going to have their experience. There’s no way,” Rivers said. “So what? It’s a clear advantage. They should have an advantage. They have an advantage over every team playing, not just us. They have an advantage over everybody. They’ve won titles together, and that you cannot knock off.”
Here are some additional story lines in this marquee Western Conference matchup:
A SIXTH FROM SIXTH: If the Spurs are going to win their first repeat championship and sixth overall, they’ll have to do it as a sixth seed. Only the 1995 Houston Rockets have won a title from the No. 6 spot, something French guard Tony Parker knows well: “I watched the finals. I woke up at 3 in the morning to watch every game. It’s a great example. It’s been done before, (but) it’s not going to be an easy task.”
STREAKING HOME: The Clippers and the Spurs aren’t just two NBA powers who got an unfortunate draw: They’re both heading into the postseason with incredible momentum. Los Angeles has won 14 of its last 15 games, losing only to Golden State since March 15. San Antonio has won 14 of 16, including 11 straight before that season-ending defeat.
HACK-A-DJ: DeAndre Jordan couldn’t make more than 40 percent of his free throws this season, and Popovich is well aware of the NBA rebounding champion’s shortcomings. San Antonio sent Jordan to the line 28 times in a loss to the Clippers in February, and Jordan won’t be surprised if such a strategy is used against him again. “There are situations in which we will probably do it,” San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili said.
KEEP COOL: The Spurs have been called for only 50 technical fouls in the last five years. The Clippers were called for 57 this season alone. Yet Rivers isn’t worried: “I think we should stay that way, because that’s who we are. We’re not quiet. We are an emotional team, so let’s not run from who we are. … There’s a lot of ways you can win. The Spurs have perfected their way, and they’ve done it really well. I think every coach would love to be that way, and that’s not who we are.”
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