The Clippers Still Have Work To Do

Apr 16, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers spirit cheerleaders react during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

After his team's impressive win over the Oklahoma City Thunder Monday night, Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers had this to say:

We can be happy about it tonight, but we have to get back to work tomorrow.

And he's right. As much fun as their second half dismantling of the Thunder was (and I'm probably going to go watch the fourth quarter again myself here soon, just for grins), the regular season is not over yet and the Clippers haven't locked up home court advantage yet.

The Clippers currently sit in fourth place in the Western Conference standings, with the top four seeds hosting playoff series. They own a two and half game lead over the fifth place Memphis Grizzlies, and hold the tie breaker as well. The Clippers have five games left to play, while the Grizzlies have four, beginning tonight in Minneapolis against the Timberwolves.

The Clippers magic number for finishing ahead of the Grizzlies is three -- any combination of three Clipper wins and Grizzlies losses in those 11 remaining games would ensure that the LAC would finish no worse than fourth. (Well, technically I suppose Denver could move up to fourth if the Clippers were to lose out, but that's highly unlikely.) When you look at that magic number of three, the Clippers almost seem like a lock for the fourth seed.

But look again. Four of the Clippers five remaining games are on the road against playoff teams. These aren't the creme de la creme opponents -- Denver, Phoenix, Atlanta and New York -- but good teams, with strong home records, fighting for playoff position. These games matter a lot to these teams. Meanwhile, five of Memphis' six remaining games are against teams with losing records -- and several are against teams currently missing their best player. Depending on whether Dwight Howard returns for their season finale in Orlando, Memphis should be favored to win every single game they have left.

If you pencil in Memphis to win out, then the Clippers need to win three of their remaining five games to finish ahead of the Grizz. Certainly doable for a team that has won 12 of their last 14, but facing a schedule that includes two sets of road back-to-backs, not a given by any means. And the Clippers caught a minor bad break being one of only four NBA teams not playing on the final day of the season -- New York could easily be locked into their playoff spot at some point and choose to rest players, but with Charlotte on their schedule the day after they play the Clippers, odds are they'll play everyone against L.A. and rest everyone against the Bobcats.

Then there is the chase of the Lakers. While the Clippers are facing non-elite playoff teams down the stretch, the Lakers have three games remaining against the best in the West, at home tonight against the Spurs, traveling to San Antonio on Friday, and then Sunday against the Thunder. And with the Spurs and Thunder essentially tied at the top of the Western Conference standings, they have plenty of motivation to beat the Lakers. A combination of a 2-3 finish from the Lakers (dropping their games against the Spurs and Thunder) and a 4-1 finish from the Clippers would give the red white and blue LA team the third seed in the west and the Pacific Division title as well.

Aside from bragging rights, there's another good reason to chase that third seed. While the Clippers seem to match up well with the Grizzlies, Memphis is among the hottest teams in the league right now and really no one wants to face them. A first round series with either Dallas or Denver would seem to be preferable. Not to mention that the Lakers fear the Grizzlies more than any other team, and leaving them in that first round matchup might eliminate a potentially dangerous opponent for the Clippers.

It's unlikely that the Clippers will catch the Lakers, and it's unlikely that the Grizzlies will catch the Clippers. My new favorite web site, playoffstatus.com, sets the likelihood at 69% that the Clippers will finish with the fourth seed, with an 18% chance that they move up to three, and a 13% chance that the fall down to five. That seems about right. But no matter how you look at it, they have to win games. To hold off the Grizzlies, to give themselves a chance to catch the Lakers, and to head into the playoffs on what has become the biggest roll in the history of the franchise: the key to all of that is to keep winning.

So it's back to work in Denver tomorrow.

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