The Los Angeles Clippers have lost three straight and four of their last five games. During that time they have dropped from third place in the Western Conference to fifth place. (For simplicity sake, I'm going to refer to a team's position in the Western Conference standings. Barring a complete collapse, the Clippers will win the Pacific Division, and with that, a guaranteed top four seed. However, given that the Clippers, Nuggets and Grizzlies are just as guaranteed to finish with the the third, fourth and fifth best records in the West, in some as yet to be determined order, the seeding is not relevant. The first round playoff meeting will open in the arena of the team with the better record, regardless of seeding, rendering the seed question meaningless in the four-five pairing. What matters is winning percentage, and if the Clippers have the fifth best winning percentage, they'll open the playoffs on the road, period.)
Each rung down the standings ladder represents a major additional challenge. The third seed in the west will likely face either Golden State or Houston in the first round of the playoffs -- a easier task than facing either Denver or Memphis, I'm sure most people would agree. The fourth seed draws that more difficult opponent, but has the advantage of opening at home and playing one extra game at home should the series go the full seven games. The fifth seed is on the disadvantaged visitor's side of that four-five equation.
None of this is deterministic of course. The third or fourth seed doesn't guarantee a win in the first round, nor does the fifth seed guarantee a loss. The Clippers lost the home court advantage to Memphis in the final week of the season last year and still won their playoff series. But let's be clear -- the only point of the 82 game regular season is to qualify for the playoffs in as strong a position as possible. Opening the playoffs on the road is a tough task for any team.
In the course of the last week, the Clippers have gone from third to fifth; from home court advantage against the Warriors to the familiar yet uncomfortable position of traveling to Memphis. There are two weeks remaining in the season and the question at this point is -- can they regain the home court advantage?
There is a bit of good news for the Clippers, which is that they have a very soft schedule over the next two weeks. In fact, the combined winning percentage of their seven remaining opponents (44%) gives them the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the Western Conference, not just among their rivals.
|4 HOME||3 HOME||5 HOME|
|3 ROAD||5 ROAD||3 ROAD|
|2 PLAYOFF||5 PLAYOFF||6 PLAYOFF|
|44% SOS||48% SOS||51% SOS|
Of the Clippers' seven remaining opponents, five of them have losing records and are out of playoff contention (the Blazers are not mathematically eliminated yet, but will be by the time they play the Clippers in the penultimate game of the season). They also have a home game against the Lakers, a mere two games over .500 at present and playing without Metta World Peace and possibly without Steve Nash. The Clippers chances of regaining either the fourth or even the third spot in the West is predicated on them playing better -- they have to beat all of the sub-.500 teams on their remaining schedule and complete their sweep of the Lakers as well. That sounds like a lot to ask, but frankly, these are all games they should win, and if they don't win them, they don't deserve home court advantage.
But even if they do all of that, the question of home court advantage will likely still come down to one game -- Saturday April 13 at Memphis against the Grizzlies. In fact, it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Clippers can catch the Grizzlies without beating them in that game.
If the Clippers lose in Memphis: The Clippers already have 26 losses compared to 24 for Memphis. If you pencil in the game in Memphis as a W for the Grizz, that puts the Clippers at 27 losses. Memphis has seven other remaining games not including the Clippers. They would have to lose three of those games in order to be caught in the standings. Memphis' remaining schedule is quite tricky, that much is true. In addition to the Clippers, they are facing four Western Conference teams fighting for their playoff lives or a better playoff position, with three of those being road games (at the Lakers, at Dallas and at Houston). They also play at Portland tomorrow night while the Blazers might still be battling against the inevitable and at Sacramento, a team that has been playing well (to be fair, the Clippers have to play at Sacramento also). Memphis' remaining schedule is hard to predict, with just one easy game (home versus Charlotte) and seven that look look like they could go either way. Still, hoping for Memphis to go 4-3 in those games is probably wishful thinking. If L.A wants to catch the Grizz, they have to help themselves by winning there April 13.
If the Clippers win in Memphis: As daunting as the situation looks should the Clippers lose in Memphis, it gets much more cheery should they win. We're now talking about a seven game win streak to close the season, which would be their second longest winning streak of the season, so it may once again seem like somewhat wishful thinking. But remember, six of the remaining games are against opponents the Clippers SHOULD beat. The schedule matters, and the Clippers took advantage of a soft December to win 17 straight. April is very soft as well, and it may provide the boost the team needs to get back on track. If the LAC can hand the Grizz a 25th loss while winning out, then Memphis would have to go undefeated themselves to avoid being caught by the Clippers. It's probably too much to ask that Memphis would lose three other games on their remaining schedule -- but they're not going to win five straight road games against some quality teams either, are they? Bear in mind that Memphis has lost five of their last six road games.
Denver has eight games left, with a similar group of second tier playoff race opponents. The Nuggets do face the Spurs next week, but that game will be in Denver where the Nuggets are almost invincible. The Nuggets are not however invincible on the road, and they do have three tricky road games remaining, in Salt Lake City tomorrow night, in Dallas and in Milwaukee. As of now both Dallas and Milwaukee have something to play for (the Mavs are striving for a playoff spot in the West, the Bucks would like to catch Boston for the seventh spot in the East and thus avoid the Heat in the first round). Denver's problems on the road combined with motivated opponents could cause them an issue in those games.
To my eyes, it appears that Denver is in the driver's seat for third place. The Clippers do however have a legitimate chance to overtake Memphis for the fourth best record -- but they will almost certainly have to beat them in Memphis on April 13 for that to happen.