Through 55 games, the Clippers were 26-29, 3 games under .500, and had not really played well for more than maybe two consecutive games. Even an early season 5 game win streak and a string of 7 wins in 8 games in late January were unimpressive, speaking more to the situation of their opponents than to the Clippers themselves.
And we kept hearing all of the excuses. Moscow this, and training camp that, and oh those pesky injuries. When in fact the Clippers were probably one of the more injury-free teams in the league, suffering only minor twists and bumps, as compared to the likes of the Lakers, Rockets and Hornets.
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The offense has struggled some, particularly with Cassell out, but that's understandable. If and when he's able to come back at something like 100%, it will be a real boost to the offense.
So what's going on? Maybe it's a little perspective. Nursing muscle pulls and various sprains earlier in the season (and talking so much about it all), the Clippers seemed to be whining and feeling sorry for themselves. There's nothing like seeing a nice guy's knee implode to make you realize that you're lucky to be getting paid to play a game. I suppose it could go the other way - you could realize that basketball is not life and death, and you could lose interest in working hard to win individual games. But the other seems more likely and seems to be what is happening - as long as you're out there playing, you need to play hard, because you are able to. It would be an insult to Livingston, who can't play for a long time, to go out there and do less than your best.
The team also has more clearly defined roles than at any time in the season. Interestingly, during the All Star break, before Shaun's injury, I mentioned the question of roles as a season-long problem for this team.
The combination of Livingston's injury and MDsr's sudden discovery of a potential All Star previously hidden on his bench seems to mean that we know who the starters are going to be from game to game. Sure, there will be some matchup chess going on, but since the All Star break, it's almost made sense (Ross starts to guard Ray Allen - OK, I get it). At any rate, even if I'm wrong and there are more starting lineup shenanigans to come, there are more minutes for everyone. More importantly, crunch time will be pretty clear cut, I should think. Thomas may be in for Kaman if the matchup allows it. Ross may be in if there's someone we have to stop (or we may go offense/defense). But Kaman, Brand, Maggette, Mobley and Cassell (when healthy) are going to play the significant fourth quarter minutes.
Of course, I'm taking a pretty big risk saying positive things about this team PRIOR to the San Antonio game. Nothing like a beat down from the Spurs to make a team realize how far they have to go. But as long as we see a solid defensive effort tonight, even in a loss, I'm going to come out of this game feeling OK. (A defensive meltdown on the other hand and I officially have no idea what I'm talking about.)
Finally, there's the subject of the playoffs. The Clippers schedule gets pretty tough down the stretch. 12 of the remaining 23 games are against teams with winning records, and 7 more are against those middling teams hovering just below .500 like the Hornets, Nuggets, Warriors, Wolves, Kings and Nets. This is a good news, bad news scenario, I suppose. Wins against those other Western Conference playoff hopefuls (the Clippers have two each against the 9th and 10th place Hornets and Kings) can solidify the Clippers spot. Likewise, the Clippers have two seemingly winnable games against the Lakers, who are a mere 3.5 games ahead of the Clippers for the 6th spot. As crazy as it seems, win those two games and the injury-decimated Lakers can easily be overtaken. The bad news is that full 19 of the final 23 games are against playoff teams, or teams fighting hard to get there. The potential for an 8-15 finish is very real.
As for the competition, the Warriors and Wolves appear to be done, although Golden State could make a final push when they get Baron Davis back tonight. The Nuggets have looked truly awful, and their remaining schedule is arguably more difficult than the Clippers'. The Hornets, whom I expected to come on strong, have yet to turn it on. Only the Kings, the team I most expected to blow up and go into the tank, have played well lately. It doesn't look like it's going to take a huge push to secure a playoff spot.
If the Clippers can make the playoffs, and particularly if they can actually overtake the Lakers for the LA NBA Title, the season goes from major disappointment to mild success. People will mostly forget the lackluster first four months of the season and instead talk about the way the team pulled together in the face of a crisis. Add in the inevitable 'when we get Livingston back' optimism, (hopefully) two first round picks in a very strong draft, and a possible contract buyout to get MBFGC into red, white and blue, and the 2007 off-season becomes a time of promise and potential, where only a week ago it figured to be full of recrimination and regret.