Saturday's win in Memphis was crucial to the Clippers chances of opening the playoffs with home court advantage. But it also keeps their hopes alive of passing Denver and entering the postseason as the third seed in the Western Conference. Which begs the question, is there a big difference for the Clippers between the three seed and the four seed?
The difference in seeding changes entirely the Clippers path to the NBA Finals. While many permutations are still possible, the most likely path with the four seed has the Clippers hosting Memphis in the first round, then going on the road to face number one seed Oklahoma City, with the Spurs or Denver Nuggets being the likely opponent in the Western Conference Finals if L.A. gets that far.
Given that the Clippers are 3-1 against the Grizzlies this season and won a Game 7 in Memphis against them last season, there's an argument to be made that the Clippers might prefer the Grizzlies in the first round, as compared to a Golden State team that defeated the LAC three times this season. If you had asked me this question -- three seed or four seed? -- a couple weeks ago, I would probably have preferred the four seed.
But that was before the Spurs and Nuggets suffered a rash of injuries. Tony Parker has been hurt and though he's back in the lineup, he seems less than 100 percent. Manu Ginobili is hurt and has yet to return. He should be back for the playoffs, but who knows how effective he'll be. Boris Diaw will miss the first round of the playoffs and possibly more. Meanwhile the Spurs got tired of dealing with Stephen Jackson and waived him last week. That's four key players for the Spurs either out or hurting for the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Thunder never have anyone hurt and seem to be closing the season strong.
The Nuggets have been red-hot, but a season-ending injury to Danilo Gallinari doesn't help. Still, Denver is crazy deep on the wing -- Gallinari's minutes will be soaked up by Andre Iguodala, Corey Brewer and Wilson Chandler, three very productive players, and so his absence may not be as impactful as one might think. The real prize of catching the Nuggets in the standings and grabbing the three seed might be he fact that the Clippers would have home court advantage in a Clippers-Nuggets series should the eventuality arise.
In the end, yes, you'd prefer to have the three seed, but it's not a huge difference. The Spurs look like the easier path to the Finals right now, but that's also the team that swept the Clippers in last season's playoffs. The Clippers actually match up pretty well with Oklahoma City -- and even though the Thunder swept the Clippers 3-0 this season, one of those losses came while Chris Paul was out, and the other two went down to the final seconds, so the season series was not nearly so lopsided as it seems. In fact, I can envision the Thunder being overconfident in a Game 1 and the Clippers ambushing them. Don't forget that the Clippers beat the Thunder three games out of four last season.
The Clippers should be the clear favorite over the Grizzlies in the first round based on their recent success against Memphis, but it will certainly be a difficult series. More importantly, even should the Clippers win, it figures to be a grueling, physical series, so it could take a toll. That's one reason the three seed might be better -- the Clippers can certainly get past the Grizzlies, but at what cost?
There are no easy paths to the NBA Finals. If Denver loses in Milwaukee tonight, the Clippers will be only too happy to snatch the three seed from them. I also can't help but think about the games that Denver has won over Chicago and Philadelphia in the last month that they probably should have lost -- the difference between third and fourth is fairly arbitrary at the end of the day. But if L.A. ends up with the four seed, the task will remain both daunting and doable.