The storyline was going to be an easy one -- redemption.
The San Antonio Spurs, the top seed in the West for the second consecutive season, were going to get their chance at revenge against a Memphis team that unceremoniously knocked them out of the playoffs in the first round last year.
Chris Paul and the Clippers, however, had other ideas, becoming just the 22nd team since 1948 to win a Game 7 on the road, defeating the Grizzlies 82-72 on Sunday.
So, it's that bruised and battered "other team" from Los Angeles headed to the Alamo City for the Western Conference semifinals after just the franchise's third playoff series win in its 42-year history.
Paul, despite a balky hip, set the pace in the clincher against the Grizzlies with 19 points, nine rebounds and four assists in what was an extremely physical Game 7.
With Blake Griffin limited due to a sprained left knee, the Clippers' reserves were critical down the stretch, posting all but two of the team's 27 fourth quarter points. Kenyon Martin, Mo Williams and Nick Young combined to finish with 33 points and 12 rebounds.
"It was a total team effort. But that's the way we've been playing all season," Martin said.
"We had the same lead around the same time in the fourth quarter [of Game 6] and we just let it slip away. And today we did all the right things towards the end," added Young.
Down in South Texas, there was no embarrassing first-round exit for the Spurs this time around.
A year after its spectacular collapse to the Grizzlies, San Antonio looked like a machine in the Western Conference quarterfinals, completing a sweep of the overmatched Utah Jazz with an 87-81 victory at EnergySolutions Arena back on May 7.
"We didn't lose our composure. That was great. We used the clock when we could. We took advantage of plays when we had to and found a way to close it out," Spurs star Tim Duncan said.
San Antonio was especially dominant in the paint against Utah. After outscoring the Jazz 58-44 inside during Game 1, the Spurs followed it up by doubling up Utah 62-36 in Game 2, matching a franchise playoff-high. Game 3 was more of the same with San Antonio holding a 50-28 scoring advantage in the paint. The Jazz finally had an edge (34-30) in Game 4 but by then it was too late.
Another key has been the Spurs' experience. Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have now played 126 playoff games as teammates, the most among any active trio in the NBA. Meanwhile, the Game 4 victory was the 112th career postseason one for reigning NBA Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich, third all- time behind Phil Jackson (229) and Pat Riley (171).
"They know that if they just stick with each other and the system that often times things are going to turn your way," Popovich said of his star trio. "That experience they have gained over a long period of time and I guess they feel comfortable with each other when they're in a tough environment."
San Antonio, which has won 14 straight games dating back to the regular season, took two of three from the Clippers in 2011-12 but the lone L.A. win came in the Alamo City on March 9. These two clubs have never met in the postseason previously.
POINT GUARD: This series pits two of the NBA's best point guards against each other.
The Clippers' last playoff series win before toppling Memphis came over Denver in 2006. In fact, the Clips managed to take just their third playoff series in franchise history. The other was a best-of-three win over Philadelphia in 1976, when they were known as the Buffalo Braves. The turnaround is largely due to the blockbuster trade that brought Paul to town from New Orleans. CP3 has changed the culture of a moribund franchise, finishing third in the NBA's MVP voting and averaging 20.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 7.1 apg in the first round against Memphis despite dealing with a strained hip flexor. Paul is probably the best combination of distributor and scorer among the league's elite point guards and was rated as the best "clutch player" in the NBA by one noted statistician.
Parker is just a step behind Paul, finishing fifth in the MVP voting, and is now the unquestioned leader of a Spurs team that used to be Duncan's. Quick as a hiccup, Parker averaged more than 18 points and a career-high seven assists this season and his teardrop floater inside the lane is a thing of beauty.
SHOOTING GUARD: Danny Green was inserted into the San Antonio starting lineup back in February, and has done a nice job as a role player that enables Manu Ginobili to come off the bench. Green, who was drafted by Cleveland in 2009, has spent the last two years under the tutelage of Popovich and is a big threat from three-point range. Working alongside Parker would help anyone's career and Green has really picked it up.
Randy Foye has seized the off guard spot for the Clippers after the season- ending Achilles' injury to Chauncey Billups. The Villanova product is a nice two-way player that does a lot of things well but isn't exceptional in any phase. He's certainly got the edge on a player like Green but pales in comparison to the Spurs' brilliant closer -- Ginobili.
CENTER: Boris Diaw wasn't good enough for the worst team of all-time but the Frenchman is good enough for Popovich to take and make him the starting center on a legitimate NBA title contender. Diaw has always had a high basketball IQ but he's undersized and his conditioning has always been suspect. That said, his ability to move the basketball from the pivot is something to be valued and Pop has been getting a solid 24 minutes a night from the big man.
The athletic DeAndre Jordan is a legitimate shot-blocking center for the Clippers. However, he has regressed mightily at the offensive end and more importantly as a rebounder, averaging just 4.1 per game against Memphis.
SMALL FORWARD: With all of the talk about San Antonio's age, rookie Kawhi Leonard has brought some much-needed youth and athleticism back into the starting lineup. Like most rookies, Leonard is inconsistent from night-to- night but the team's imposing depth offers a safety valve if he isn't producing.
The hard-nosed Caron Butler is as tough as they come. The veteran was expected to miss four to six weeks after breaking his left hand against Memphis in Game 2 but didn't miss a game. While obviously limited, Butler defends and offers coach Vinny Del Negro a solid presence on the floor despite the injury.
POWER FORWARD: Duncan is one of the greatest power forwards to ever play the game. He is also one of just a few players to rank among the top 30 on the NBA's all-time scoring, rebounding and blocks list, joining the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes and Hakeem Olajuwon. A slick shooter from the elbow and one of very few to use the glass, "The Big Fundamental" brings a plethora of postseason experience into this series. While on the downside of his brilliant career he is still as consistent as they come.
Griffin is an athletic marvel that can ignite any crowd with a vast array of awe-inspiring dunks. As good as he is, however, the Oklahoma City native relies too much on his athletic gifts and will learn a thing or two from Duncan's mastery of the game. The fact Griffin also comes into the series with a sprained left knee certainly won't help. Griffin, who finished with just eight points and four rebounds on 3-of-11 shooting and left early in Game 7 against the Grizz, has said he would be ready for Game 1 in San Antonio.
BENCH: San Antonio's bench is arguably the best in the NBA with Ginobili leading the way. An All-Star level player if he was getting 40 minutes a night, the left-handed playmaker tempers his ego to fit in with Popovich's system. Veteran swingman Stephen Jackson, a tough, well-rounded former All- Star, has also been reborn in San Antonio and is third on the Spurs in scoring during the playoffs.
"Jackson is a pretty tough hombre. When he gets up on you and wants to guard you, he's tough to go around," former NBA coach Mike Fratello said.
Popovich also used three-point specialists Matt Bonner and Gary Neal as well as gifted big man Tiago Splitter and rebounding machine DeJuan Blair. All in all this is a ridiculously strong group and it's what sets the Spurs apart from most teams.
"Our second unit can be as good as a lot of the starting fives in the league," Parker said. "Our second unit is playing very well and they have been playing great all season."
L.A. also has an excellent bench that was buoyed even further by an excellent Game 7 in Memphis. Mo Williams is a former All-Star and a two-way guard that can make things difficult on defense for the Spurs while Nick Young is the definition of a streak shooter who can fill it up when the jumper is falling. Eric Bledsoe is also a solid backup point guard and a pesky defender.
Up front Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans bring energy, toughness and rebounding to the dance. In fact, Evans, while extremely limited offensively, is one of the NBA's best pure rebounders and a pest defensively while showing on the pick-and-roll or trapping in the backcourt.
COACHING: The fact that Diaw and Jackson have both been big-time contributors in San Antonio tells you all you need to know about Popovich as a coach. He simply gets more out of players than others and while he often downplays "The San Antonio way," it's obvious he's able to connect with players while others can't. The reigning NBA Coach of the Year is simply the top mentor in the game.
"There's great camaraderie on this team, something that is hard to duplicate," Fratello said. "They have the same work ethic and common goals. The older, more experienced players have passed along what this program is all about."
Del Negro is actually lightly-regarded as a coach and there were rumblings that he would be fired in the regular season. That said, he's persevered and winning a Game 7 on the road is a tough task for any coach.
PREDICTION: People have been talking about a "final run" from Duncan and Company for a few years now but they keep chugging along.
Obviously when Duncan does finally retire the franchise will more than likely take a hit but Popovich has done an excellent job integrating some youth into the team this season. Still, it's Duncan, Parker and Ginobili as well as other veterans like Jackson and Diaw that will tell the tale here.
Paul will get the Clippers a game or two but San Antonio's relentlessness will pay off with a trip to the Western Conference finals.
"In order to beat [the Spurs], you're going to have a comparable system, an evenly talented one-two punch and you have to be a little tougher," former NBA star Shaquille O'Neal said.
SPURS in 6