First the Los Angeles Clippers were the team that could never win. Then they became that couldn’t win it all. Going into this year’s playoffs, it is now or possibly never for them to make it out of the Western Conference and reach the NBA Finals.

“If we’re not better prepared now than we were three years ago, we probably shouldn’t even play,” Chris Paul said. “I would like to think we are, but there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to play.”

From 1-6, this is as good as it is going to get for the Clippers. Their offensive output of 106.7 points per game is behind only the Golden State Warriors, who are the best team in the NBA. They are third in the NBA in assists per game, which is a clear indicator of their ball movement ability. Head coach Doc Rivers has always talked praised in J.J. Redick’s ability to move through the court and create offense and his shot without the ball; a unique trait in the NBA.

After all, he is Doc’s creation, a realization of his vision of the recreation of Ray Allen’s effectiveness to a championship team. Combine him with the sharp shooting of Jamal Crawford and Chris Paul is equipped with enough shooters to win any duel in the West.

With 10.2 assists per game, Paul tops everyone in that category. He’s also not only the top prototypical point guard in the league, he’s also one who can also lead the charge with 30 points in a game while fostering 20-point performances from other teammates.

There will be times when he’s complacent with just 10 points and a bunch of assists but he’s been aggressive with the scoring as of late. He has averaged 20.5 points per game in April on 52% shooting from the floor, 51% from three and 97% from the free throw line.

“CP is just on a mission,” Doc Rivers said on his point guard, “and that’s good for everybody.”

Their first round matchup against the San Antonio Spurs is perfect because it gives them the chance to win over nationwide confidence. They’ll have the home crowd on their side and they won’t have to worry about opposing fans infiltrating Staples Center because nobody west of Texas likes the Spurs.

“That is huge,” Jamal Crawford said on having home court advantage. “Like I talked about before the game, the fans have been there through good and bad times. I think they can help push us to the next level, so that is good for us.

“With them specifically, they can play anywhere,” Jamal Crawford added. “You can take them to Mars and they’ll play, but all the games we can have on our home court, the better. I think it helps.”

The Spurs are clearly the team of reputation. Having won the Western Conference Championship in the previous two years, everyone uses age as a tool to dismiss the Spurs, yet are never willing to do so come playoff time.

“They’re a veteran team,” DeAndre Jordan said. “They know how to play. They know what it takes to win a championship and they know how to turn it on. For us to be a championship team we have to be that way and better, especially with a team that’s been together so long.

“I think their mental toughness is great, greater than anyone else in the NBA. They’ve been together. 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. A lot of times it gets them back into the game and they win late in the fourth quarter because other teams break down when they stay strong and stick to their principles.”

The Spurs are behind the Clippers offensively but they have the advantage over them on defense. They hold their opponents to an average of 97 points per game, which ranks third in the NBA in that category.

That being said, the Clippers are also not chopped liver on defense.

“We have been a really good defensive team over the last two months,” Redick said.

This first round series with the Spurs may be considered personal to the Clippers, but then again, which playoff matchup involving this team hasn’t been? After triumphing over the Memphis Grizzlies in 2013, this Clippers trio of Griffin, Jordan and Paul got swept away by the Spurs.

“The first one we got our ass kicked,” Jordan said. “We got swept. That was my first time in the playoffs. It was fast. There was no experience whatsoever from my end or Blake [Griffin]’s.”

The Clippers should be able to beat the Spurs this time around but the X factor in this and every series that the Clippers will be involved in is Jordan’s free throw shooting. He is shooting below 40% from the free throw line and teams will use the “Hack-a-Jordan” strategy the way people breaks the glass to get the fire extinguisher. At least the anticipation of it is no longer on his mind.

“I do not think about it as much anymore because I know it is going to happen,” Jordan said. “But my teammates believe in me when I am at the line. J.J. [Redick] says I have a nice stroke so that makes me feel more comfortable at the line. I know I will knock them down when I need to and if I do not I will try to get a stop on the other end.”

On Sunday night at Staples Center, the Clippers will “pLAy as one”, “LAy it all on the line” and all the other clich√© they have out there on those “pLAyoff” banners around LA Live.

“They’re the champs until somebody knocks them off,” Crawford said. “Nobody’s going to get to the Finals without going through the Spurs. All roads lead through them anyway.”

Tony Capobianco started the SMDP column “Cap Space” just in time for the 2014-15 Clippers season. You can contact him via email at capomiami@yahoo.com.

Tony Capobianco

Cap Space is a Santa Monica Daily Press column that mainly covers the Los Angeles Clippers.

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