The Los Angeles Clippers have been one of the best teams in the NBA for the last two months, and have done almost everything imaginable to get themselves back into a favorable position in the Western Conference standings. In fact, they are now tied for the second best record in the West, and are alone in second in terms of record against the other teams in the conference.
Their reward for all of this hard work is perhaps the most difficult path to the NBA Finals.
If the playoffs started today, and indeed if the Clippers, Spurs and Rockets all win their final game, which seems likely, the Clippers will enter the postseason as the third seed. They would open with the Memphis Grizzlies, and then assuming the playoffs go to plan, they would have to face the San Antonio Spurs and finally the Golden State Warriors in order to get out of the West.
The eighth seed in the West, whether it's New Orleans or Oklahoma City, will be the least daunting opponent, as it should be. Golden State earned the right to face them. After that, Dallas is looking less than elite at this point, so it hurts that San Antonio and not the Clippers gets to face them, based on the technicality of winning the Southwest Division.
Meanwhile, Portland is clearly only the sixth best team in the west right now, but will receive the fourth seed based on a different Division winner technicality. The Trail Blazers have already lost their starting shooting guard for the season, and now have four other rotation players banged up at one level or another.
Yet another playoff team, Houston, has also suffered a spate of injuries, and will be without two starters, Patrick Beverly and Donatas Motiejunas, in the postseason.
Those are all of the teams the Clippers WON'T be seeing in the postseason as things stand now. In other words, it's pretty easy to make the argument that the Clippers, tied for the second best record in the West, will have to go through the three best other teams in the conference in order to emerge as conference champs.
Memphis is of course having some issues of their own, but minor injuries to Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Jeff Green and Tony Allen may all be healed by next week, returning the fearsome Grizzlies to full strength.
With all that in mind, let's look at what can happen these last two days of the season.
The Clippers play in Phoenix tonight, before their rivals who all finish the season tomorrow night, and LA will no doubt try to win. If they do, they can finish no worse than the third seed, which as we've seen is not quite the bargain they'd hoped it would be.
If they do indeed win, then they would really like for San Antonio to lose to New Orleans on Wednesday night. If the Spurs win, then it gives them the Southwest Division title and puts them squarely in the Clippers' path. If the Pelicans somehow pull the upset, then things could get a bit easier -- but only a bit. In that case, the Spurs might fall all the way to the sixth seed, meaning the Clippers could actually see them in the first round. But at least LA would have home court advantage in that scenario.
So that's first and foremost -- the Clippers would like the Spurs to lose. If somehow BOTH San Antonio AND Houston lose on Wednesday (assuming the Clippers win tonight) then the Clippers would actually capture the 2 seed, and with it a significantly easier path to the Finals. But that's probably too much to ask for.
The only good news here is that a loss tonight has somehow become no big deal. The Clippers can drop no further than the fifth seed, and even then they'd be fifth in name only, and would get home court advantage against the Trail Blazers (who are really the sixth place team, bear in mind). So a loss tonight actually gives the Clippers an easier first round opponent -- but it also gives them a tougher second round, as they'd run into the Warriors one round earlier.
I've never seen a race that remained this complex until the final two days of the season. And although the division winner rules have been in place and illogical for a while now, I've never seen them have quite as much impact before (at least not since the last time they were changed, just after the crazy 2006 playoffs where the Clippers benefited by facing division winner Denver in the first round). To my knowledge this is the first time since then that a division winner will jump more than one spot, from 6 to 4 in Portland's case. It's been a wild year in the West for sure -- the postseason will no doubt be just as wild.