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The Clippers will close the season strong

A prolonged difficult stretch in the Clippers schedule will come to an end this weekend and the team will face much less daunting competition over the final month. Combined with a return to team health, the Clippers could get on a serious roll.

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more interesting and bizarre exchanges from Sunday's National TV broadcast of the game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors came when analyst Jeff Van Gundy boldly proclaimed that for all the talk of the incredible quality and depth in the Western Conference, there were really only three teams that could actually win the west -- and then refused to name the three.

Van Gundy is never shy and generally enjoys sticking his neck out with unabashed hyperbole -- so the fact that he was unwilling to actually name names in this case was very out of character for him.

But let's face it, that was a stupid thing to say. I mean heck, why not just say that there's only one team that can win the west -- but refuse to say which one it is? You'll never go wrong with that sort of strategy.

Talk is cheap, and talking heads on TV spend it freely. Van Gundy's timid boldness reminded me of the myriad TV guys who declare player X or player Y an all star snub whose exclusion is a complete travesty -- without mentioning whom they would have left off the team. You can't have it both ways.

When pressed by Mike Breen and Mark Jackson, Van Gundy did include the Warriors and the Grizzlies as two who have a chance -- not so much bold, brilliant analysis as a sequential reading of the Western Conference standings as of that moment. And he did question whether Portland would be a "real" contender without Wesley Matthews. But even assuming that we're only talking about the top eight who might be in the conversation at least for some, he only excluded one team from that list, and there's a BIG difference between three and seven.

If you ask me, the magic number is six West teams who have a real chance. I would not have included Portland even before Matthews went down (and with the addition of Arron Afflalo, the Matthews injury certainly hurts Portland's depth but it doesn't change their basic equation significantly). And it's pretty easy to look at Dallas' play of late and say that their in-season attempts to get better have not paid off -- Rajon Rondo and Rick Carlisle are a bad combo, and where chemistry had Dallas overachieving earlier in the season, the lab experiment has gone awry at this point.

I'd also have to admit that I'd be pretty damn surprised to see Houston come out of the West -- that just feels like a regular season roster to me. It's going to be too easy to scheme James Harden into tough nights in the playoffs, and then what will the Rockets do? (On the other hand, Houston has continued to win even without Dwight Howard who should be back for the postseason, so maybe they're better than I think they are. Which is why I hesitate to officially exclude them.)

The other five? Exclude any one of them at your own risk.

The Clippers are no doubt the fourth team that most would put into the fake-contender category, but here's a prediction of my own on that subject: the Clippers will close the regular season as the hottest team in the Western Conference, will enter the post-season as no worse than the third seed, and everyone (except Charles and Kenny) will have them squarely in the contender category by the time the playoffs start.

In fact, the prediction isn't even that bold. Here's why.

Let's start with some simple metrics. The Clippers still have the second best efficiency differential in the west, and that matters. In fact, the Clippers differential is a full 2.8 points better than the supposedly elite Grizzlies, almost twice as good. So you could make the argument that the Warriors are really the only team that matters in the West and that it's theirs to lose -- but including or excluding any of the other eight teams is pretty tough to justify, at least from a statistical standpoint.

More to the point, the Clippers have been in an incredibly bruising stretch of their schedule, a large portion of which they've faced without Blake Griffin and lately also without Jamal Crawford. But the NBA schedule always balances out, and all those playoff teams in February and early March means relatively weak opposition in the final month of the season.

That schedule respite is in fact starting very soon now. Games tonight in Oklahoma City and Friday night in Dallas are both very winnable, though the Clippers will likely enter each of those games as underdogs in Las Vegas. But starting Sunday when they host the Rockets, the Clippers will almost certainly be favored to win 15 of their final 16 games. During those final 16 games, they play exactly two road games against teams with winning records. By way of contrast, that's coming off a stretch in which they play six out of nine on the road against winning teams. One of the two road games against winning teams in the final 16 will be in Phoenix on the final day of the season -- by which time the Suns will almost certainly have been eliminated from the playoff race and have nothing left to play for. So in my mind, from March 15 until April 14 only the game in Portland on April Fool's Day is a likely loss. That's not to say that they'll close the season on a 15-1 run -- but then again, they might.

Especially if they get Griffin and Crawford back soon. This season ending hot streak is contingent on improved team health of course, but if they can get two of their three best scorers back they could get on a serious roll. Let's face it, DeAndre Jordan, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick have been absolutely stellar in Griffin's absence, and Matt Barnes has been pretty good as well. If Griffin comes back healthier and hungrier, the combination could be scary.

The open secret in all of this Western Conference postseason talk is that matchups are going to play a huge role. There are eight really, really good teams, and it's entirely possible that any one of them could lose in the first round if they have a bad draw. Will the Warriors be favored in a first round series that is likely to come against the Oklahoma City Thunder? Sure. Could they nonetheless lose to a Thunder team with both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook healthy? Of course they could.

In the end, I'm not even suggesting that the Clippers need to play any better than they have been to close the season strong. The schedule matters, and the Clippers have played very well against an absolute gauntlet of opponents even without Griffin. This is obviously not the healthiest the team has been, but it is arguably the best that they've played, all things considered. If they can continue to build on that, the combination of a weak schedule and the return of Griffin and Crawford should have them peaking at exactly the right time. At which point Jeff Van Gundy will no doubt say "I told you there were three teams who could come out of the West" as he adds the Clippers to the list.