Force is with Clippers this time as they finish off Game 6 win

The Clippers take a 102-96 victory over San Antonio with strong play in the fourth quarter

They have promised hardcore and, finally, seven months later, they are delivering hardcore.

The Clippers have scratched and scuffled and survived to play a Game 7 against the defending champion San Antonio Spurs on Saturday at Staples Center.

A five-ring dynasty has been taken to the brink. A three-ring circus of underachievers has pushed them there. The biggest win in a once-forlorn franchise's history is at stake.

That relentless enough for you?

The magnificent Game 7 appeared late Thursday night here when what was supposed to be a closing game for the Spurs turned into the Clippers' finest closing moment of the season — and their first of the playoffs — in a 102-96 victory over the Spurs that evened their first-round series at three games apiece.

No, this time the Clippers didn't stumble, fighting the desperate Spurs from rim to floor, fighting so hard down the stretch ballboys worked overtime toweling off the sweat.

With the Clippers leading by three with 3:27 left, J.J. Redick bounced off some bone-jarring picks to hit a leaning three-pointer that set the tone for what was truly crunch time.

"We played very hard, we played with a force," Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. "You have to have that. It requires you to have that if you want to win this game."

No, this time they didn't crumble, clutching loose balls, swiping loose rebounds, turning a deafening chant of "Dee-fense" into the sounds of chairs flipping up and feet pounding for the exits.

With the Clippers leading by three with 21 seconds left, Chris Paul, who didn't score a basket in the first half, completed an amazing comeback with a clawing, driving layup around seemingly all of San Antonio to knock the Spurs silly.

After scoring four points in the first half, Paul finished with 19 points and 15 assists while seemingly refusing to allow his team to lose. He led a charge that impressed even the curmudgeonly opposing coach, who could only shake his head at all the body blows.

"We lost because the Clippers were determined, physical, focused and played harder than we did," Gregg Popovich said. "We were soft and it hurt."

Finally, with the Spurs needing a three-pointer in the final 10 seconds for one last gasp, Paul simply manned up and stared down Patty Mills at the three-point line for nearly nine seconds before he finally passed the ball, and the game, away.

"I've been saying it all year, this team is tough, it's mentally tough," Rivers said.

People wondered. The Clippers lost two games in this series by collapsing under the same pressures they faced Thursday. Blake Griffin threw one game away. DeAndre Jordan tipped another away.

This time, the opposite happened. Griffin didn't commit a single turnover while making more than half of his 21 shots for 26 points, with 12 rebounds and four blocked shots. Meanwhile, Jordan blocked three shots and stayed in the game long enough to disrupt Tim Duncan into scoring just a dozen points.

"We missed shots, we made mistakes, but the way we kept fighting…" said Griffin, his voice trailing off in quiet admiration.

You want fight? Perhaps the most impressive feat of strength occurred when giant Glen "Big Baby" Davis crumpled under the basket, off court, early in the fourth quarter with a sprained ankle.

With their training staff quickly hefting the nearly 300-pound Davis away from the action, Rivers was not forced to use one of the timeouts that were so valuable later.

"That is no normal guy to scoop off the floor," Rivers said. "He was out of bounds, so it allowed our guys to try to pick him up, which is not that easy, and get him off. So that was big in a crazy way."

Indeed, after establishing a sorry theme for this series by failing to finish, the Clippers finally finished, so strongly and certainly that one has to wonder whether the Spurs could really be finished.

"We should be embarrassed with the way we came out for a close-out game, in every regard," Popovich said.

The home team wins nearly 80% of NBA Game 7s. The Clippers must feel even better knowing they have beaten the odds by just being in this Game 7.

Before Thursday, Popovich was 12-1 when his team led a series 3-2. On the other side, Rivers was 0-3 in those situations.

"This series, somehow, should go seven," Rivers said of the battle between the aging kings and the royal wannabes. "That's just right."

Game 7 tips off at Staples Center at 5 p.m. It will be coincidentally before the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquaio fight. But this will be no preliminary bout.

For a Clippers team that has never dethroned such a powerhouse in the postseason, it could be the main event in Clippers history.

They have forever promised hardcore. For at least 48 minutes Saturday, it will be a promise fulfilled.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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