Longtime fans of the NBA will likely be familiar with the phenomenon of postseason progression frequently applied to youthful contenders and not-quite-there-yet teams — a narrative best described as "You can't win it all until you've suffered some hearbreak in the playoffs." Most likely, it's just another example of confounding correlation with causation, but that doesn't mean there isn't some truth in the statement. Maybe playoff experience means something more when it comes in the form of painful losses.
Most recent champions and finalists have fit into this theory neatly, and you'll have to go back to the '08 Celtics for a team that clearly bucked the trend. Of course, that team was an outlier in many other ways, and even they took their fair share of knocks early in the postseason (going the full seven games in their first- and second-round series) before emerging with a championship.
I mention them because this year's Golden State Warriors might be among the best teams to come along since then, and they've got some of the same outlier characteristics those Celtics did. Although the core of their team hasn't changed much in the past two seasons, in many ways they are a very different squad this year, one who doesn't have quite the résumé of postseason heartache some people consider a prerequisite for the Larry O'Brien trophy.
In any other year I wouldn't disregard this line of thought so quickly, but 2015 is an outlier year in its own right, with last year's incumbent contenders either disbanded, crippled, or stuck in the midst of the standings. The Warriors this year don't have a clear Pistons to their Bulls, a higher-seed foil to stymie the upstarts until their time comes. The way I see it, only two teams might feasibly fit that role this year, and not coincidentally they're also the two teams the Warriors likely wish to avoid most — the Spurs and the Clippers.
Well, maybe not so much fear the Clippers, since both teams relish this rivalry and each considers themselves the superior of the two. But they should be wary; the two teams' familiarity with one another probably only helps to unsettle the playing field and throw the outcome into further doubt. Strange things are liable to happen in matchups like these.
In regards to the 'gotta-take-your-lumps' narrative (which probably also figures somewhat into pundits' hesitation in tapping them for deep runs), the Clippers might look a little less impressive to the casual observer — some who'll consider them to be abject failures for failing to make the WCF in a series they weren't even favored in. It's in a universe like this where two second-round appearances and a first-round exit at the hands of a vengeful rival are weighed without context and found to be enough to dismiss a team as an also-ran, with its peak possibly behind it. Of course (most) Clippers fans should see right through that foolish notion.
In a very, very roundabout way, we've finally gotten to the point the rest of this editorial sprung up around. "The Clippers can't make it to the Finals because they've got no idea what it's like to even be in the Conference Finals!" a freshly-painted straw man says, propped up in a cornfield somewhere. This, of course, gives me the perfect opportunity to shake a finger back, and respond, "Ah, but that's where you're wrong!"
When it comes to playoff experience the Clippers have as much or more than any team in the league, bar San Antonio and maybe Memphis. They were a reasonably poised bunch even last year; it's hard not to be with Chris Paul on your team, let alone the wisdom of cherished elders from the 2009 Eastern Conference All-Star team. But it's hard not to think they're not as unflappable as anyone else, considering everything they've been through as a team (not to mention the age and individual experience of many of the players).
We know their postseason last year was no ordinary one, no mere second-round finisher subject to only passing glances from the Sauron's Eye that is the media spotlight. As a team, the Clippers underwent one of the more trying ordeals in recent memory, attempting to come to terms with, answer for and take a stance on the Sterling Affair that exploded around them both inside and outside of the bubble of the sports world. After all that, they made the second round and played what very well might have been the second best team in the league last year.
And then of course, there was that Game 5. That alone might be one of the most brutal exemplars of the take-your-lumps model of championship ascension. But when you add it to everything else the team had gone through, it becomes rather obvious that their level of experience far outstrips the 'lost in second round' printed on the pages of a dusty almanac or table of records somewhere.
TL;DR — The Clippers have a ton more playoff experience (gained through extra-ordinary trials and tribulations) than some random people I saw online gave them credit for and FINE I ADMIT IT I JUST NEEDED A SEGUE FOR TODAY'S DAILY CLIPPER CUT ME SOME SLACK
With all that said, on to today's links.
The Pelicans shot better than 50 percent from the field. They hit 54.5 percent from 3-point range. But it didn’t matter because it wasn’t about New Orleans. Like any Clippers game, it was only about them.
"We decide, every night, how the game’s going to go," Clippers coach Doc Rivers told his team in an early timeout Sunday. "That’s all I said. It’s always our choice how the game’s going to go. I believe that about us."
"When we come out and play the way we should play in any game, we can beat anybody," center DeAndre Jordan said. "Today, we came out flat. And, maybe a couple of years ago, we wouldn’t have won this game.
As the Clippers take the turn into the season’s final stretch, the value in a calm confidence when things get rough is immeasurable.
"I think we trust the system. We know the system works," [Blake] Griffin said. "That stretch of games while I was out, they really trusted the system. They really played well. Guys stepped up, but trusting the system was huge."
It was around this time last year the Clippers started to catch their groove, Griffin remembered, and it paid off in the postseason. Rivers hopes it’ll carry over this spring. When things go wrong, when teams put up numbers that make the Clippers say "Wow," they know what they can rely on.
"I think we’ve been pretty secure with who we are this year. Our team has a great inner confidence," he said. "You better have an inner confidence when the playoffs start. Otherwise, when you get shaken at some point, you can’t shake yourself back. If you believe in yourself and what you’re doing, things will work out."
That confidence also shows in a change to one of their usual customs. As a veteran coach on a veteran team, Doc doesn't care about standings and matchups, just winning now and focusing on themselves — per Arash Markazi.
There is a whiteboard hanging from the front of the Clippers locker room used to update the NBA standings. In past years it has been updated after every game with team logos moving up or down based on that night’s results.
Not this season. While the whiteboard is still there, it is nothing but a bunch of lines that haven’t been filled in five months.
"I have no idea where we are in the standings," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said Sunday... "I just have never been a standings watcher. I’m not doing it for any effect. I don’t know what it does for me. If I look at it what will it make me do? We need to win. If you focus on winning the single games, everything takes care of itself. It’s a fact. Maybe with 5-6 games left we’ll look at it but you have to focus on the games."
That doesn't stop the players from looking every now and then, but it's clearly not a primary focus on their minds right now. They don't care who they match up against because they gotta beat 'em anyways if they want to win it a—
The first goal is to get home-court advantage and the unspoken second goal is to avoid San Antonio in the first round and possibly Golden State in the second round.
Well, OK I guess they care about matchups a little bit. Ideological purity only gets you so far, y'know? But the overarching point remains; like any veteran team, playing their best in the postseason is what matters most, a sentiment echoed by Matt Barnes after yesterday's game.
"I'm just old. I can't give it to you every single game in the beginning of the season. Once the sun starts coming out and playoffs come around, it's time for us to go — myself, [Hedo Turkoglu], Jamal Crawford. We are ready for this run.
"We're continuing to get better. We have to stay healthy and get Jamal back. Every game we have, we are trying to move up, but we have to take every game like it is a playoff game and try to get that second or third seed."
Conserving themselves for when it matters is another motif we've seen bouncing around this Clippers season, Blake's vacating of the paint for the midrange chief among them. The Clippers haven't openly embraced many aspects of analytics, but Doc does love the research on sleep. From sleeping to resting is but a small leap of faith, and resting players is very much an option going forward.
"If I think our guy needs rest, then we'll rest the guy," Rivers said. "What I still don't know — and I'm not smart enough to know that — if rest in games 40-50, is that more effective than resting from games 70 to 80? We all have theories. I'm sure there actually is an answer to that. I would think later has to be better. But who the heck knows?"
With a little over a month left in the season, Rivers said he won't let where his team stands in the Western Conference dictate his decision. "If I thought rest would help us in the playoffs, then we're going to rest. I think that's the better way of explaining. Because if you're playing guys and you're tired, you're going to lose anyway. So give me a chance of a healthy team. I know that as a fact: A healthy team is better than an unhealthy team. I'm positive of that."
On that tautology, we'll bid you — the infinitely patient reader — adieu, and leave you with two simple words of wisdom: Hidayet Türkoğlu.