Now that the Los Angeles Clippers are through the softest part of their remaining schedule with an impressive seven game winning streak to show for it, the final 16 days of the regular season will get much more competitive.
The end result of the LAC win streak, combined with swoons by both Portland and Memphis against competition that was the polar opposite of the Clippers' list of cupcakes, is that Los Angeles currently holds home court advantage in the first round and even controls its own destiny for the three seed. That's the good news. The bad news is that the three seed may not be such a great thing.
Why? Well, if you're a believer in net efficiency (and Clipper fans ought to be given that it ranks the Clippers as the second best team in the league) then a three seed would most probably set up a very difficult first round series for the Clippers -- the San Antonio Spurs, who currently hold the third best net efficiency in the league. Basically, depending to some extent on how you feel about East teams like Cleveland and Atlanta, the three best and hottest teams in the NBA right now are the Warriors, the Clippers and the Spurs. And it's entirely likely as of this moment that the Clippers will run into one of those two opponents in the first or second round of the NBA playoffs this season, once again creating a huge roadblock between the team and the elusive conference finals.
If the Clippers stay where they are and hold onto the fifth seed with a better record than four seed Portland, then it sets up a favorable first round matchup for LA against the Blazers, who are missing starting guard Wesley Matthews and against whom the Clippers have had plenty of success. That's good. But it also would set up a second round rendezvous with the Warriors, who benefited more than anyone else from the injuries in Oklahoma City and suddenly have a free pass in the first round against the Durant-less and probably Ibaka-less Thunder.
If on the other hand the Clippers can pass the Grizzlies, but remain behind the Rockets (or vice versa) then it would most likely place them in a 3-6 first round series against the Spurs -- even if the Spurs finish the regular season tied for the fourth best record in the conference.
The problem is that Portland has all but clinched the Northwest Division, where the Thunder are currently second, and the NBA's bizarre seeding rules guarantee a top four seed to each division winner. Based on current form and remaining schedule, it seems entirely likely that the red-hot Spurs will finish the regular season with a better record than the fading Blazers -- but even if that were to happen, the Blazers would still get the fourth seed and the Spurs would get the sixth seed. The impact of that seeding quirk is relatively minor -- unless you're the three seed and your first round opponent suddenly got a lot tougher.
It would be ideal if the Clippers could climb all the way to the two seed, but that is a much more difficult proposition. Once again the dubious preferential treatment that the NBA gives to division winners works against the Clippers here. The Clippers play in the same division as the dominant Warriors who have already clinched the Pacific. LA (with 25 losses) is chasing both Memphis (24 losses) and Houston (23 losses), one of whom will win the Southwest Division. To pass one of them, the Clippers just need to finish in a standings tie with that team (assuming the Clippers win on April 11 against Memphis, which would seem to be a prerequisite for catching them at any rate) because the Clippers would hold the tie-breaker against a non-division winner. To pass both of them in the seedings, the Clippers would have to pass both of them in the standings, not just catch them -- a much more difficult task with just eight games remaining.
Assuming you're like me and that first round meeting with the Spurs scares you, there's another scenario in which it can be avoided -- if the Clippers can take over the three seed while the Spurs take over the five seed. Memphis has the advantage on the Spurs in tie-breakers at present, but the Spurs and Rockets have two more meetings with each other this season. If San Antonio can win both of those games while the Rockets (who have four other road games remaining against teams fighting for playoff spots beginning tonight in Toronto) oblige and lose a few others, the Spurs could make up the three games by which they trail the Rockets in the loss column and take over the five seed, dropping the Rockets to six. That would set up the Clippers for a first round matchup with the Rockets and a second round meeting with the Grizzlies, leaving the Spurs and Warriors to fight it out in the second round on the other side of the bracket. Wouldn't that be nice?
Playing the "What seed do you really want?" game is next to impossible, even with two weeks left in the season. We all know that matchups are as important as any other factor in the playoffs, but even knowing the teams you want to face (or avoid) isn't necessarily an advantage, since you don't know where those teams will finish. The Clippers don't dread any team right now -- they've had decent success against every team in the West this season -- but it's simple self-preservation to want to avoid the Warriors (by far the best record and the best metrics in the league this season) and the Spurs (the defending NBA champions and a team that is clearly to be feared in the post-season) as long as possible. Unfortunately for the Clippers, as of now it seems that they'll meet one of those teams sooner rather than later this postseason.