Big second half from Chris Paul powers Clippers to win, forces Game 7 vs. Spurs

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This series had to have a Game 7.

It’s been too good not to — two of the three best teams in the NBA right now (sorry Cleveland, Houston) forced to face off in the first round when this could have been a conference finals.

Game 6 lived up to the hype. In a series where Chris Paul and Blake Griffin had often struggled late in games, they flipped the script Thursday night. Paul had 15 points and seven assists in the second half, while Griffin added 18 and had a key block on Tim Duncan with 5:50 left in the game.

“I thought Chris and Blake took the game over. We didn’t stop them, and they were tremendous,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.

Those two did enough to power the Clippers to a 102-96 win in San Antonio Thursday night. This forces a Game 7 back in Los Angeles Saturday night (8 p.m. Eastern on TNT).

The way this series has gone, that game may be more entertaining than the Mayweather-Pacquiao that follows.

“I’ve been saying this all year, this team is mentally tough,” Doc Rivers said after the win.

“We lost because the Clippers were determined, physical, focused, played harder than we did,” a smoldering Popovich said postgame. “We were soft on loose balls, we’d get a rebound they’d knock it out of our hands, hard time getting open — I thought their physicality in that regard was great. We were just soft. I’m not sure how we stayed in the game to be honest with you.

As you would expect in a closeout game, the Clippers came out with a sense of urgency. Their pressure defense looked quicker than it had all series and forced eight first-quarter Spurs turnovers, which led to easy buckets in transition. Those points plus DeAndre Jordan altering shots inside, and J.J. Redick starting 4-of-5 shooting, made this what should have been a perfect start for the Clippers, who led by as many as seven in the first. But, as it has been all series, the Clipper bench came in and things instantly tightened up. By the end of the first it was 26-26. The Clippers could not create separation.

The second quarter became the Marco Belinelli show for the Spurs as he came in and went 4-of-4 from three, part of a 9-0 run. Then the Spurs went to hack-a-DJ, and it helped open the lead up to 10, although that was more about the Clippers missing 19 three pointers in a row (across two games). However, with the intentional fouling Tim Duncan and Tony Parker picked up their third fouls and went to the bench, the Clippers brought their starters back in, and the Clippers went on an 11-4 run.

The score was 51-51 at the half. Yet the Clippers had to feel fairly good about that considering CP3 was 0-of-7 while as a team they were 1-of-9 from three.

The Clippers came out hitting their shots in the third quarter to take a 10-point lead. Doc Rivers went with his shooters and had his small lineup doing damage, led by CP3 making plays — six games into the series and the Spurs have not come close to solving the Clips double high screen play. Paul had help from  Griffin, who had struggled in the fourth quarter throughout the series was 3-of-3 in the final frame plus had some big defensive plays down the stretch.

Of course, there were close calls late. Jamal Crawford got away with a walk late. Boris Diaw got caught on an offensive shot interference call tipping in a missed shot while it was over the cylinder. A lot of things could have gone another way, befitting this series.

The Spurs got 23 points off the bench from Belinelli — he was 7-of-11 from three on the night and hit a shot in the final minute to keep the Clippers on edge. Borris Diaw added 17 points. Kawhi Leonard had a rough night, shooting 3-of-15 and not being his usual self on defense.

J.J. Redick had 19 points for Los Angeles; Paul had 19 points and 15 assists, Griffin had 26 points.

It was not all good news for the Clippers. Glen Davis had to leave the game — and be wheeled back to the locker room — for what was officially called a sprained ankle but looked to be something worse with a foot he had broken a couple years back.

Game 7 could go either way — four of the six wins in this series have come on the road. All the games save one have been decided late because these are two evenly-matched teams. Two title contenders standing toe-to-toe, trading blows.

This series had to have a Game 7.