An Arash Markazi tweet yesterday stated that the Clippers would clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Warriors. That wasn't actually true, as evidenced by the absence of any mention of clinching in Markazi's recap after the win.
When the ninth place Phoenix Suns then lost big in San Antonio later Saturday, the Clippers moved ever so slightly closer to clinching. In fact, by my reckoning, the Clippers are now all but assured of a playoff spot. Yet the elusive asterisk does not accompany the Clippers name on the NBA standings. So what's the deal, did the Clippers clinch or not?
Bear in mind of course that with six games left, this is more of an academic exercise than a real world scenario. For all practical purposes the Clippers are in, as it's highly unlikely that the Clippers would lose their final six games, or that the Suns would win their final six. But what if they did? Let's take a minute to go through the permutations.
The Clippers have won 37 games -- in the worst case scenario, they would finish the season 37-29. The tenth place Utah Jazz have already lost 30 games, so they cannot catch the Clippers in the standings. That leaves the Suns as the magic team with whom the Clippers have to concern themselves .
The Suns are sitting on 29 wins -- if they win out, they'll finish 37-29, and will in the process also take the season series from the Clippers 3 games to 1. With the season series tie breaker, the Suns can indeed surpass the Clippers in the standings.
But wait. The Rockets and Nuggets each have 27 losses. The Clippers own the season series 3-0 versus the Rockets, and lead 2-1 versus the Nuggets with a game left to play. And importantly, the Nuggets, Suns and Rockets have three games left to play against each other -- HOU@DEN tonight, DEN@HOU tomorrow and DEN@PHX on Saturday. One in those games and the Suns can't catch the Clippers. But two losses for either Denver or Houston drops them into a tie with the Clippers even if they win all of their other games.
The tie breaker rules change slightly when the tie is among three teams. In that case, instead of looking just at head-to-head, you look at the cumulative record among all the teams involved. By my math, the worst the Clippers can do at this point is to finish in a three way tie for the 7-8-9 spots. If Houston is one of the teams in the tie, the Clippers would almost certainly get through, as their sweep of the Rockets would be difficult to overcome.
So at this point, there would seem to be only one scenario that would keep the Clippers out of the playoffs:
1 - The Clippers lose out;
2 - The Suns win out;
3 - The Rockets win all of their remaining games EXCEPT they split their two games with Denver;
4 - The Nuggets win all of their remaining games EXCEPT the two they lose to Phoenix and Houston.
If all of those things happen, the Clippers, Nuggets and Suns would finish with identical 37-29 records, and the Clippers would lose the three way tie breaker. That is it. That is the only scenario that can keep the Clippers out of the playoffs.
So what are we rooting for? A Clippers win or a Suns loss is the easiest thing. And of course the Clippers have ample opportunity to take matters into their own hands with remaining games in Denver and in Phoenix. Unfortunately, Clipper fans have no rooting interest in the Denver-Houston game tonight -- but whoever wins tonight, we want them to win tomorrow night as well.
And then we'll get our asterisk.