SAN ANTONIO — The Los Angeles Clippers are aware their toughness, resolve and focus has been questioned for years. They also know there is only one way to silence that talk.
The Clippers proved their mettle against the veteran San Antonio Spurs again, overcoming another disappointing loss to set up what could be a defining victory for their franchise.
Blake Griffin had 26 points and 12 rebounds and Chris Paul had 19 points and 15 assists as the Clippers held on for a 102-96 victory over the Spurs on Thursday night, forcing a Game 7 in their first-round series.
“I’ve been saying it all year, this team is tough,” Los Angeles coach Doc Rivers said. “They are mentally tough. We hear all the stuff about them, but this team is mentally tough. We’ve got to do it again.”
The Clippers held off a late charge by the Spurs to even the series.
Marco Belinelli hit two 3-pointers in the final 80 seconds, including one with 14 seconds remaining, to cut the Clippers’ lead to 98-96. But Jamal Crawford and Griffin each hit two free throws to preserve the win.
“It was probably one of the most relaxed games we’ve had as far as our mentality,” Paul said. “We just stayed the course. Tonight was one of the funnest games of the series. It seems like it’s easy to say that because we won, that definitely helps, but just the intensity of it. I think we just never got rattled.”
The Clippers, who won for the second time in San Antonio, forced a Game 7 on Saturday in Los Angeles. No other first-round series has gone the distance.
“The Spurs have to probably be excited, they get to go to our place now the way this series has turned out,” Rivers said. “It’s a crazy series.”
San Antonio is playing a Game 7 in the first round for the second straight year, but this one appears more ominous. The Spurs went on to win their fifth championship last season after defeating the Mavericks at home, but San Antonio is just 1-3 in Game 7s on the road in their history.
There is also the matter of two frustrating losses following dramatic road victories in Games 2 and 5.
“Our execution at the offensive end was really poor,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “There’s no excuse for it. We should be embarrassed at the way we came out for a close out game.”
Belinelli led San Antonio with 23 points, including going 7 for 11 from 3-point range. Boris Diaw had 17 points, Tim Duncan added 12 points and 13 rebounds and Kawhi Leonard had 12 points.
The Spurs’ bench outscored the Clippers’ 48-15, but Los Angeles’ starting five had an 87-48 advantage.
J.J. Redick added 19 points and DeAndre Jordan had 15 points and 14 rebounds for Los Angeles.
Paul was 7 for 21 from the field, but he helped steady the Clippers when they needed it.
He hit a fadeaway jumper and a 3-pointer to give Los Angeles an 85-78 lead with 7 minutes left, snapping a 3-minute drought by both teams at the start of the fourth quarter. The Clippers would hold the Spurs without a field goal for just over 4 minutes.
“In the second half he was just on the attack,” Rivers said. “He was more aggressive. Somehow I still have to get on him. It’s amazing because he’s a great player, but trying to convince him he’s a great scorer, especially in this series, has been difficult.”
Los Angeles opened the second half on an 11-2 run, with San Antonio failing to score in the first 2 1/2 minutes.
A 12-foot jumper by Paul and a dunk by Glen Davis gave the Clippers a 76-72 lead entering the fourth quarter.
The Spurs employed their hack-a-Jordan strategy early, intentionally fouling the Clippers center before the ball was inbounded with 5 minutes left in the first quarter. Jordan responded by making both free throws and then stole the ball on the ensuing possession and sprinted for an emphatic one-handed dunk ahead of Duncan.
Jordan finished 7 for 15 from the free throw line.
San Antonio committed eight turnovers in the first quarter, but still rallied from a seven-point deficit for a 26-all tie entering the second quarter and 51-all at the half.
“We’re not going to lie to ourselves,” Diaw said. “Coach is good with those kind of things and he tells us the truth no matter what. He tells us when we play well, but he also tells us when we play bad or if we didn’t bring enough energy. We came out flat at the beginning of the game.”
Clippers: The Clippers have never won a best-of-seven series when they trailed 3-2. … Griffin (13.4) and Jordan (13.0) are the first teammates to average 13 rebounds in a series since the Spurs’ David Robinson (15.7) and Dennis Rodman (15.4) did so in 1995. … Paul is averaging 9.9 assists per game in the postseason, which is third all-time to Magic Johnson (11.2) and John Stockton (10.5).
Spurs: San Antonio lost for the first time in eight close out games at home since 2006 and is 13-5 in those games under Popovich. … The Spurs’ bench entered Thursday averaging 44.6 points in the series compared to 23.8 by the Clippers. … Tony Parker had eight points and seven assists, giving him 3,761 career postseason points to move past Hakeem Olajuwon for 11th place all-time and 1,054 postseason assists to surpass Scottie Pippen for sixth.
Davis’ status for Game 7 is unknown after he left the game in the third quarter with a sprained left ankle. The 6-foot-9, 290-pound Davis had two points and three rebounds in 10 minutes before being helped off the court after falling out of bounds.
“That’s not no normal guy to scoop off the floor, but we would have burned a timeout (if they couldn’t),” Rivers said. “We wouldn’t have had that timeout. That’s why I was screaming, because he was out of bounds, so it allowed our guys to try to pick him up, which is not that easy, and get him off.”