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Spurs face daunting road against the Clippers

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I wrote a whole series preview and never mentioned the Spurs best player, Kawhi Leonard. They said it couldn't be done. No, wait, actually they said it shouldn't be done. Oops.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

It was just one game. One of 82. It really shouldn't matter. Common sense tells you it shouldn't matter. The first lesson anyone the slightest bit curious about analytics learns is to ignore small sample sizes. The second lesson is that correlation doesn't equal causation.

It was just one game. One lousy game separating the Spurs from being the two seed and being the proverbial lock to advance to at least the Western Conference Finals. Who would've picked against them with home court advantage through the first two rounds? Give me the name of the pundit or analyst bold enough to pick them to lose to Dallas in the first round or to Houston/Los Angeles/Portland/Memphis after that. Just one name.

Oh, this preview would've been so different if not for just one game.

And the thing is, it didn't have to be to Game 82, against a talented Pelicans squad fighting for their lives. It could've been this game or this one or this one or this one or this one or this one or this one. Flip just one of those results and we'd have the know-it-all section of Basketball Twitter lamenting, "Oh geez, can we just fast-forward to the inevitable Warriors-Spurs Conference Finals already?"

Instead, the Spurs must now play a first round series against the Clippers, by any measure one of the five best teams in the league, and do so with the knowledge that they need to beat them on the road at least once.

The numbers tell us that this series with the Clippers will be a coin-flip. Both teams closed the regular season on a tear. The Spurs wound up finishing 21-4 over their last 25 games and shot up from seventh in the standings all the way to... sixth. Viva La Western Conference! Anyway, L.A. finished with a 6.7 point scoring differential to San Antonio's 6.2. The Spurs are the defending champs, they have the better roster on paper and all that corporate knowledge, but for the life of me I don't get why they're the decided favorites in this series for one simple reason: They STINK on the road.

Last season they set a franchise record with 30 road wins, and they went 14-8 vs. playoff teams on the road, including 6-2 after the All-Star break. This year, however, the Spurs went 22-19 on the road, 8-14 against playoff teams, and 3-5 after the All-Star break. Actually, they went 3-and-a-half months from Dec. 5 to Mar. 18, between road wins against a playoff team, losing 10 in a row against such opponents.

And even last year's Spurs, for all their road dominance in the regular season, still went just 5-5 away from the AT&T Center in the playoffs, compared to 11-2 at home. In fact, here are couple of illustrative tweets from my Gothic Ginobili pal, Aaron McGuire:

Yikes.

The Pop/Duncan Spurs have always talked about being tough and resilient on the road, but haven't always been able to back it up.

The biggest reason is three-pointers. At home, the Spurs are second in the league at 39.1 percent. The Clippers, by the way, are eighth at 37.2 percent. But on the road, the Spurs were just 18th in the league, at 34.0 percent. The Clippers just happened to be second. And first place was the Warriors, of course

The biggest culprits were Danny Green (47.0 percent at home, 35.4 on the road) and Manu Ginobili (39.1 percent at home, 30.0 on the road) though a bunch of other guys have less dramatic differences.

It's not just the three-pointers. The Spurs just play with more confidence, more energy, more spirit at home. They all look collectively five years younger. Even with all their aforementioned heartbreaking overtime losses at home this season, they still had a better home record than last year's Spurs. At home you know no matter how sluggish they start, they're always good for one 17-2 run to get back into a game or to blow it open. On the road, that extra gear just hasn't been there. Instead, that one awful quarter kept happening to them.

When you're a great home team and you have home court advantage, it's such a devastating psychological weapon. Even if you're not a great road team, you get up 2-0 in a series and your mentality improves, your confidence improves, and the opponent is weakened. Winning on the road gets easier than it otherwise would've been. The Spurs won countless road playoff games over the years they had no business winning, just because of the mental edge they'd gained from being up in their series 2-0 or 3-2. All the pressure was on the opponent.

Obviously Tiago Splitter's availability is important. He's their best hope of containing Blake Griffin. Being able to shoot on the road, minimizing live-ball turnovers, keeping transition points to a minimum, keeping J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford in check, all of those things are important. All I care about though is regaining home court, because until then you're behind the psychological eight ball.

The Spurs have won 11 straight Game 1's. The last time they lost one, in 2011 to Memphis, Ginobili didn't even play, recovering after breaking his right arm in Game 82. They went on to lose the series. My analysis is that the Spurs should try to keep winning Game 1's.

Ultimately, as I told J. Gomez and JRW, it will come down to Tony Parker and Ginobili. If they combine to average over 30 points and under six turnovers, the Spurs will be fine. If they combine for less than 24 points and over eight turnovers, they're toast. Parker needs to make Chris Paul work on defense. Ginobili needs to be the catalyst to give San Antonio's bench a clear edge over LA's. They have to neutralize Redick and Crawford. I'm concerned.

One damned game might seem inconsequential, but entire Spurs seasons have come crashing down because of one shot, one rebound, one foul, even 0.4 seconds. Compared to that, a whole game --which they lost on the road despite trying their hardest to win because of what was at stake-- seems gigantic.

It's on the Spurs to prove it wasn't an omen.

A shaky, not-at-all confident pick of Spurs in six.