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Clippers 98, Mavericks 91: Growing Pains

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

You've undoubtedly heard talk in the last week about "meaningless games", both from myself and others.  The sentiment isn't wrong--it really doesn't matter for the Clippers if their record is 52-28 or 51-29 right now.  In  the typical sense by which we evaluate the meaning of games (how the contribute to a W-L record), these games don't matter to the Clippers.

But they matter.  At least in the sense that these games matter to other teams whose W-L records are still relevant, as is the case with Utah and Dallas, who are still fighting for a playoff spot as well as positioning.  After the Clippers' win over Dallas today, Portland is almost assuredly going to secure the 5-seed.  The Trail Blazers' only remaining game is against the already-eliminated Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, and if they win that, they'll clinch the 5th-best record.  Dallas and Memphis will have games between now and then to determine if that Nuggets game even has meaning--if Memphis beats the Clippers on Tuesday AND the Warriors on Wednesday (leaving the Grizzlies with 28 losses), they could steal the 5-seed with a Portland loss (which would be their 29th).  If Dallas defeats Utah tomorrow night AND San Antonio on Wednesday, they can also steal the 5-seed with a Portland loss as long as Memphis doesn't win out.

Basically, Portland controls their own destiny with a favorable match-up, and one of the other teams would have to win two tough games in order to take advantage of a Blazers loss.  So, it's not clinched yet, but it's going to be Portland-Clippers in round 1.

If the Clippers had lost this game, Dallas would have still controlled their own destiny for the 5-seed, tied in the loss column and controlling the tiebreaker.  The Clippers won, and the chances of this being a playoff preview plummeted.  That's not meaningless.

What's also not meaningless is the unusual circumstance of Blake Griffin's return and re-integration in this closing stretch.  The All-Star big man has had just a handful of games to get back in shape following a three-month absence, and every game provides him with an opportunity to recover and us with an opportunity to evaluate him.  Tonight's game was shaky, but got better as it went along, and despite a strong finishing stat line (17 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists), he's not quite "back".  The aggressive, driving portion of Blake's game re-emerged in spots today, but there were also several plays where the rust clearly showed.  His decision-making on both ends was still somewhat hesitant, and he ended up with 4 turnovers and 5 personal fouls.  And, most significantly, the mid-range shot is still nowhere to be found.  The release isn't as smooth as we saw in December, and his frustration is showing as he racks up misses from 15-18 feet.

Blake isn't a natural jump-shooter, and he worked diligently on his mid-range shot for year.  Three months away from it, due to a broken hand and a knee injury that prevented practice, is killer for rhythm.  He'll find it again, but it will take a lot of repetition, along with some patience.

I titled this recap "growing pains" because that's what much of Blake's performance was tonight.  Some mistakes, some bad plays, but still an insistence that he needed to get the ball and get more reps, even when he was missing.  DeAndre Jordan's free throw shooting also fell into this category tonight--it's been growing pains for a while now, but Doc let him play through a 6-23 performance.  With a first-round series against Portland looming, DeAndre had best get used to shooting free throws in high volume.

Also significant in this game was the extended run that Jamal Crawford got at SF.  At this point, Jamal is likely the Clippers' 5th-most reliable player, and if Doc can get away with it defensively and size-wise, he'll lean on Jamal as the 5th man in the lineup as often as possible.  Dallas plays a lot of 3-guard units, which made Doc's decision easy.  Against more challenging match-ups in the playoffs, we'll have to see where Doc chooses to lean at SF.