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Clippers and Grizzlies - the Race for Fourth and Timing


There's an old joke, one of my favorites...

First guy: I'm a really great comedian.

Second guy: Really? What makes you such a great comedi --

First guy: Timing!

Actually, that probably works better live than in blog form, but you get the gist.

Apropos to very little, as it's just an idea that's been rattling around in my head, the Clippers timing has been pretty bad this season, through no fault of their own.

The NBA schedule on the whole is more or less the same for every team. A little less so this season, with a less balanced schedule between the conferences and many more odd numbered head-to-head series of one and three games, but even given those discrepancies, most Western Conference teams play essentially the same schedule by the end of the season.

We spend a lot of time looking at what few advantages or disadvantages there are when the schedules are first released. How many back-to-backs (or this year, back-to-back-to-backs) does team A have, what is the longest road trip for team B, etc. But for the most part, all of those kinds of things tend to balance themselves out. So for instance the Clippers were handed a very leisurely schedule to begin the season, and then paid for it with an absolutely brutal month of March. Is it really any wonder that the Clippers started the season strong and then suffered their big slump the first few weeks of March?

The Clippers caught a minor break in their Eastern Conference opponents, playing New Jersey and Washington and Atlanta twice. Compare that to the Mavericks, who had Miami, Boston and the Knicks as their extra East foes. So there are small differences that can matter some.

But what gets noticed less is the timing of when you play teams. There's little to be done about this of course, mostly just the luck of the draw. Maybe a team gets a disproportionate number of games against teams dealing with injuries. There's no conspiracy here, it just happens.

At the end of the season, when we look back at a combined record of 4-8 for the Clippers against the Suns, Timberwolves and Warriors, and look at where those teams finish in the Western Conference, there's going to be an obvious missed opportunity there. Flip that record, make it 8-4 instead of 4-8 against three teams that will all likely miss the playoffs, two of which will finish 12 and 13 in the conference (if not worse), and the Clippers are Pacific Division champs and within spitting distance of the Spurs and Thunder heading down the stretch. How could they have lost so many games to those dogs?

The thing is, they weren't exactly dogs when the Clippers lost to them. In their first 33 games, exactly half the season, the Clippers did not play the Suns a single time. All four meetings have occurred after the All Star break. At the All Star break, the Suns were 14-20 -- since the All Star break, they are 19-10. What happened to turn the Suns season around? Who knows, but the Clippers had the misfortune of playing four games against the good Suns, zero games against the bad Suns.

Minnesota? From Ricky Rubio's first start until his injury, the Wolves were 18-12; before and since, they are 8-26. The Clippers had the honor of playing good Minnesota three times (three losses) and bad Minnesota once (a win). They certainly shouldn't have lost to any Minnesota three straight times, but losing thrice to a solid playoff team (as an 18-12 team would be) isn't nearly as frustrating as losing thrice to a deep lottery team.

Likewise, the Warriors beat the Clippers for a second time just three days before completely giving up on their season, at which point a team playing close to .500 basketball became a 4-18 embarrassment. Portland? The Clippers faced the Blazers three times in the season's first eight weeks, once since they threw in the towel -- but at least the Clippers went 3-1 against the Blazers.

This phenomenon is in stark contrast to the final seven games on the Memphis schedule. The opposition players NOT in uniform against the Grizzlies down the stretch (Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, possibly Kyrie Irving) will be well-represented with accolades at the end of the season. While it means that Memphis will almost certainly win out and in the process force the Clippers to win at least two more games or lose home court advantage, one can only hope that the Grizzlies will forget what it's like to play against NBA competition in the process. Charlotte? Super tankers Portland and Cleveland? Orlando in shambles? These are the remaining opponents for the Grizzlies.

Who knows? Maybe Hasheem Thabeet will have a great game against his former team in his second career start on Saturday. But probably not.