San Antonio Versus L.A.: The Makings of Another Classic?

April 29, 2015 Updated: April 29, 2015

The Spurs pivotal 111–107 Game 5 win over the Clippers Tuesday night in Los Angeles allowed Gregg Popovich’s squad to steal back homecourt advantage in the much-anticipated series, as the defending champs head back to San Antonio for a very crucial Game 6 Thursday.

The win was the second straight by the visiting team and third time in the five games overall that the home team has lost.

It also marked the best contest in what has been shaping up to be an all-time classic series—and it’s only the opening round.

In case you didn’t stay up for the action (the game ended just before 2 a.m. EST) the back-and-forth battle featured a third quarter that remained exciting despite 35 combined free throws, another turn-back-the-clock performance from Tim Duncan (21 points, 11 rebounds, and one crucial block), and was finally clinched when LA’s DeAndre Jordan committed offensive basket interference with 4.9 seconds remaining and the Clippers down a point.

The fact that this opening round matchup has the intensity of an NBA finals series is no surprise though. Both teams have title-winning aspirations—though on opposite sides of the spectrum.

The veteran-laiden Spurs are led by five-time champion Tim Duncan along with four-time champions Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Everyone else on the squad “only” has his one title from last year.

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Meanwhile Clippers coach Doc Rivers came from Boston two years ago after winning the title in 2008 and nearly winning again in 2010, when his surprising Celtics lost to the Lakers in seven games—a series that was altered by then-Boston center Kendrick Perkins’s Game 6 injury.

The Celtics eventually elected to rebuild while Rivers preferred to go someplace where he could win immediately. Enter the Clippers where Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are the stars—without rings.

In fact, the only ingredient missing from making this better, would be if the two teams had faced each other in last year’s playoffs.

San Antonio knows that component very well.

The Spurs met with LA’s other team—the Lakers—four straight years in the playoffs from 2001–2004. It was the premier matchup in the league as the two franchises won every NBA title from 1999 through 2003—though the 2004 one might have been the most exciting.

In 2001, the then-defending champion Lakers swept the previous champion Spurs in the West finals en route to the most dominating playoff run in NBA history. The following year the Lakers stopped Tim Duncan and the Spurs again in five games in the second round. (As it turned out the best series that year was between the Lakers and Kings—a seven-game thriller that finished with the Clippers winning the finale on the road.)

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Finally in 2003, the Spurs dethroned three-time defending champion Lakers in a six-game second-round classic. With the series tied at two games apiece, Game 5 turned out to be the decisive game.

The Spurs, who had homecourt advantage, blew nearly all of a 25-point third-quarter lead and watched helplessly as Lakers forward Robert Horry’s (aka “Big Shot Rob”) potentially game-winning three rattled around before rimming out as time expired to preserve the Spurs 96–94 win. San Antonio then blew out the Lakers out in Game 6—in Los Angeles.

The following season started as 2002 did, with the teams spitting the first two games. Game 5 in San Antonio turned out to be another classic with the lead changing three times in the final minute.

First, Kobe Bryant’s 20-foot jumper put the Lakers up one with 11.9 seconds left. The Spurs responded with Tim Duncan hitting a jumper, just beyond the free-throw line (with Shaquille O’Neal in his grill) with just 0.4 seconds left—the minimum time allowed for someone to do a catch-and-shoot.

The Lakers, with one last try inbounded the ball near their basket, but with the Spurs double-teaming Kobe (by not guarding the inbounds passer) the ball went to Derek Fisher who, all in one quick motion, caught it, jumped, turned, and hit a fade-away in the lane to win the game. The Clippers then closed out the series with a Game 6 win.

If history is any indicator, the Spurs should close out Game 6 at home—against Los Aneles’s former “other” team.