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A Look at Standings and Schedules Heading into March

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Where will the Clippers end up?

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

For a while, it seems like the Clippers have been in the same position in the standings--safely nestled in at the 4-seed, too far back to have any hope of catching the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, but within striking distance of the third-place Oklahoma City Thunder and holding a decent but not insurmountable buffer over the teams in the bottom half of the playoff picture.

However, things are going in an interesting direction--the Clippers' scheduling is getting so hard as to seemingly damn their hopes at the 3-seed and put them at risk of dropping below 4, but the context of the conference is shaping up in the Clippers' favor.  Oklahoma City has an even harder upcoming schedule, and Memphis, the only team within striking distance of the Clippers, is 3 losses behind L.A. and their best player, Marc Gasol, will likely miss the rest of the season with a broken foot.  The rest of the teams in the playoff picture--Utah, Dallas, Portland, and Houston--are all 8 or 9 losses behind the Clippers and hovering around .500.  While nothing is impossible, the Clippers now seem to be safely insulated from the bottom half of the playoff picture.

If you accept the premise that the Clippers are likely safe from dropping out of the top four, there are still a few questions to be answered, primarily regarding any potential upwards mobility towards the 3-seed, and possibly first and second round match-ups.

When the news broke that Blake Griffin would miss most or all of March with a broken hand, the Clippers' chances at passing Oklahoma City for the 3-seed seemed doomed.  However, since the news of Griffin's hand, the Thunder are 7-3, the same record as the Clippers.  Since Griffin originally went out with a partially torn quad tendon in December, the Thunder are 20-6--the Clippers are 19-6 in that time heading into their game against the Phoenix Suns tonight.  It seems that while everyone was busy talking about how the Clippers' good record in January was simply a result of a weak schedule, everyone has overlooked that OKC has a remarkably similar stretch.  And just as everyone is ready to write off the Clippers due to the upcoming difficult schedule, they're overlooking that the Thunder have an even harder road to travel to finish out the season.

Right now, the Clippers are 3 losses behind the Thunder in the standings.  The teams have three head-to-head match-ups remaining in the season, and all are going to be just as crucial in determining this seeding battle as the first one (a one-point victory by the Thunder on Los Angeles) was.  The first of these three games is on March 2nd, and between now and then, the Clippers play four lottery teams (Phoenix, Denver, @ Sacramento, Brooklyn) with rest in between each game, and the Thunder play two tough games (@ Dallas, vs Golden State) and two easier ones (@ New Orleans, @ Sacramento).  The Clippers' hardest game in the next week is the same as OKC's easiest one, and it's not unrealistic for the Clippers to hope to sweep this week while Dallas and Golden State pin two losses on the Thunder, positioning the Clippers to be just one loss back of the Thunder when they play in Los Angeles on March 2nd.

As far as first-round match-ups go, the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff picture is an unpredictable scrum.  The only team with any separation is Memphis, which lost its best player to injury and then traded both of their starting wings to put together a roster featuring P.J. Hairston, Lance Stephenson, and Chris "Birdman" Andersen around incumbents such as Matt Barnes and Zach Randolph.  Memphis will likely slide in the next six weeks, but their present buffer might be enough to keep them in the playoff picture.  In positions 5-9, Dallas, Portland, Houston, and Utah are all flirting with .500 records, though I'd expect Houston to undergo some post-deadline locker room issues and be the team of that bunch that falls out (they tried to trade Dwight and couldn't, they  tried to trade Lawson and couldn't, Patrick Beverly was made available, Donatas Montiejunas was traded, and now that deal will be voided due to an injury, and Marcus Thornton could get bought out).  Then, in slots 10 and 11, Sacramento and New Orleans are both teams with serious problems and ownership-imposed playoff expectations that are still just one hot streak away from entering the mix.

My best bet from a Clippers perspective would be to not worry about the first-round matchup and position yourself for the second round.  These teams in the bottom half are incredibly unpredictable and volatile, and while I find Utah the scariest of them, the Clippers should be able to take down any of them in a series.  It's very possible that 5 or 6 teams finish within 1 or 2 losses of each other, so it would be very hard for the Clippers to position themselves for certain match-ups.

When it comes to positioning themselves for the second round, the Clippers are faced with an impossible pick-your-poison scenario--would you rather face the 49-5 team with the +11.5 point differential, or the 47-9 team with the +12.4 differential.  Oddly enough, the Clippers seem to have the history and match-ups with both of these teams to make a series interesting either way, but I think ultimately the Spurs are the better bet.  The Clippers were able to beat San Antonio in the playoffs last year, and I don't think that LaMarcus Aldridge makes them as much better as I thought he would.  I'm far from confident that the Clippers would eliminate the Spurs again, but I think they enter that series with a fighting chance--and while I'd like to think that about a potential Warriors series, I'm not quite as sure.