Clippers must knock out defending champion Spurs in playoffs' first round

If Clippers want to win the title, they must go through the mental toughness of the Spurs

If the Clippers were to beat the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs, they would still need 12 more victories to win an NBA title.

It would only seem like they were so much closer.

The Spurs have become the silver-and-black standard-bearer for excellence, giving the Clippers' opening playoff series the feel of something much more significant.

"Nobody's going to get to the Finals without going through the Spurs," Clippers sixth man Jamal Crawford said Thursday as his team began preparations for Game 1 on Sunday night at Staples Center. "All roads lead through them anyway."

It's no exaggeration. The Spurs have advanced to at least the Western Conference finals in nine of the last 16 seasons, and their Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili feels every bit as reliable and nearly as long-lived as General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

The trio has been together for 13 seasons, winning four titles (Duncan has a fifth) and 539 games, one victory short of the record set by Boston's Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. That longevity and consistency make them a particularly tough out in a playoff series that requires beating them four times, particularly when you add Kawhi Leonard, the reigning most valuable player from the Finals.

"Their mental toughness is great, greater than anyone else's in the NBA," Clippers center DeAndre Jordan said. "They've been through everything they could have gone through to be champions, and they don't really get rattled. Even if they're down 15, they're still going to play the same way and play Spurs basketball."

Orchestrating it all is Coach Gregg Popovich, a savant of winemaking and basketball whose Obi-Wan Kenobi-esque beard reflects his wisdom and steely calm.

"I think every coach in the league wants to be like Pop," Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. "Players want to be like Mike [Jordan], we want to be like Pop."

The third-seeded Clippers (56-26) earned home-court advantage in the series after closing the regular season with 14 victories in their last 15 games, a touch better than the sixth-seeded Spurs (55-27), who won 14 of their last 16.

Not that the Clippers expect the Spurs to struggle on the road in the playoffs.

"They can play anywhere," Crawford said. "You can take them to Mars."

San Antonio swept the Clippers in the conference semifinals in 2012, which may have felt like alien territory for a franchise that has been that far in the playoffs only six times in its 45-year existence. It was also the first collective postseason foray for the Clippers' Jordan, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

The Spurs also handed Paul a bitter Game 7 defeat in the conference semifinals in 2008, when Paul played for the New Orleans Hornets in only his third season in the NBA.

"The biggest thing I learned from them back when I was 23 was, you never get too high or too low in the playoffs," Paul said. "Every game takes on a [life] in itself. It's all about winning each one. If you go up 1-0 and win by 50, you don't start Game 2 up 50."

The Clippers were already forced to play some defense three days before their playoff opener when NBA Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley implied that Jordan and Griffin were largely responsible for their team's inability to make it out of the second round.

Barkley said on a conference call with reporters that Jordan was overly reliant on dunks and that Griffin "has not become better in the halfcourt" because he takes too many jump shots.

"Every time he shoots a jump shot, the defender is saying, 'Thank God, he shot a jumper,' " Barkley said. "So if he keeps saying he wants to round his game, screw that, man. You get to the basket, you get layups, dunks, you get the other team in foul trouble."

Informed of Barkley's criticisms, Jordan said, "How many rings does Charles Barkley have?"

That would be zero, the same as Jordan and significantly fewer than the total of the storied team he is trying to nudge aside.

Twitter: @latbbolch

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