Back at the beginning of January, when I posted about the Magnificent Seven in the Western Conference, we looked some at the Clippers' strength of schedule and RPI. Well, one game shy of the midway point, and despite a significantly easier schedule in January, the Clippers still have played the fourth toughest schedule in the NBA, and their RPI is 12th overall, 8th in the Western Conference. By way of contrast, Denver has played the weakest schedule of any Western Conference team, and Minnesota has played the second weakest. Those happen to be the teams currently in the 7th and 8th positions overall in the Western Conference, while the Clippers sit in the 9 hole.
The point is, despite having played an incredibly disappointing first half of the season, the Clippers are in the thick of the playoff race. With Carmelo and AI set to play their first game together Monday night, it stands to reason that Denver will be able to overcome their tough second half schedule and qualify for the playoffs comfortably. (It remains to be seen of course how the Melo / AI experiment plays out.) Minnesota's schedule, on the other hand, is starting to catch up with them this week. They got crushed in Phoenix Sunday night (KG served a one game league suspension and Ricky Davis served a one game team suspension - in effect those two just got some extra rest in a game that the Wolves weren't going to win anyway). Monday night they play at 26-14 Utah. In all, they have 5 road games this week, while the Clippers have 3 home games. The week culminates with a head-to-head meeting on Saturday. In all likelihood, the Clippers will gain a full game in the standings without even playing as the Wolves lose in Phoenix and Utah, and there is a very good chance that the winner of Saturday's game will go to bed that night holding the final playoff spot.
It's clear that the Clippers have underachieved thus far. And I haven't really seen a lot of encouraging signs to make me think they're getting it together. But the very fact that they are still in position to make the Western Conference playoffs validates our thinking - they do have potential, even if they're not playing up to it. With the perestroika Bucks (no more Redd) up next, the Clippers should finish the first half 20-21, on a three game win streak. True, the three wins would be against a team with 7 available players, the team with the worst record in the NBA and a team missing 4 starters. But momentum is a curious mistress. If you string together some wins and THINK you're turning things around, you might actually start to turn things around, regardless of how lackluster the opposition.
This is a big week.