Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
The Clippers fell of the pace for the top seed in the West while Chris Paul was hurt, but with the team playing well again and Tony Parker expected to miss four weeks for the Spurs, dreams of a number one seed are no longer so unrealistic.
When Chris Paul spent almost four weeks in and out of the Los Angeles Clippers lineup (mostly out) in January and February with a bruised knee cap, it seemed to relegate them to third place in the Western Conference. When he was first hurt on January 12th, the Clippers were 28-8, tied for the best record in the league with the Oklahoma City Thunder and three games ahead of the 28-11 San Antonio Spurs in the loss column. By the time Paul returned to form on February 10th, they were 35-17, four games back of the Thunder and four and a half behind the Spurs. It wasn't particularly surprising or alarming that the Clippers went 7-9 while Paul was out/limited -- but with only 30 games left, making up five in the loss column against teams as good as the Spurs and Thunder seemed too much too ask.
Just three weeks later, the task no longer looks so impossible. For one thing, Oklahoma City has continued to dominate at home and against weaker competition, but hasn't beaten a winning opponent on the road since they defeated the Paul-less Clippers 16 games ago. The Clippers are still two games back of the Thunder in the loss column, but only a half game back overall, and with the two teams meeting tomorrow in STAPLES Center, a Clippers win would put them in a virtual tie by winning percentage. More importantly, OKC has seven road games against winning teams on their remaining schedule -- compared to just four such games for the Clippers. In short -- OKC is already caught if the Clippers can take care of business this weekend.
The Spurs have been a different matter as they've continued to win at a league-best pace and have shown no signs of vulnerability. Despite the Clippers winning eight of their last nine (with the lone loss coming at the hands of the mighty Spurs in blowout fashion), they remain four games back of San Antonio in the loss column.
But things may have changed last night. San Antonio's All Star point Tony Parker turned his ankle against Sacramento and an MRI today revealed a Grade 2 sprain that will keep him out of the lineup approximately four weeks. The Spurs have been amazingly injury-proof this season, overcoming extended absences from Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and others, but Parker may be another story. He's been the Spurs best player all season, and he's only missed three games. According to ESPN Stats & Information, in the last three seasons the Spurs are just 7-7 in 14 games without Parker.
Four weeks is essentially the month of March, during which the Spurs play 13 games, but they may have caught something of a break in that their remaining schedule is front-loaded with some pretty soft opponents. Five of their next seven games are against teams with losing records, with a sixth coming against the slumping Bulls, and all but one of those games are at home. So frankly the first half of March could easily see the Spurs go 6-1 or better, even without Parker. In fact, with the Spurs having recently completed their rodeo trip, all of March will be played almost exclusively at the AT&T Center where San Antonio is 23-3. The Spurs will play only two road games (at Minnesota and at Houston) during the time that Parker is expected to miss. Bottom line, hoping for a 7-6 stretch from the Parker-less Spurs is probably unrealistic.
If the estimate for time missed is accurate, the Spurs may be getting their star point guard back just in time for some crucial contests. The Spurs will face the Clippers on March 29, exactly four weeks from the date he sustained the injury, so it's possible that Parker could be back by then if he heals quickly. In addition to the Clippers (a game which could have implications for the top of the Western Conference standings and which will determine the season series between the teams), the Spurs also face the Heat on March 31 (best overall record and the season series could be on the line), play in Memphis April 1, and have tough away games in Oklahoma City, Denver, at the Lakers and in Oakland the rest of April.
So it's going to be interesting. San Antonio may have dodged a bullet if they can take advantage of their home heavy March schedule while Parker is out and he can return at full strength before things get tough for them in the season's final three weeks. But there's little question that they'll will miss their MVP candidate; perhaps not as much as the Clippers missed Paul, but maybe just enough to put the top seed in play.