The good news: the Clippers have clinched the 4th seed. Not just at-least-the-4th-seed, not just no-less-than-the-4th-seed, they're exactly the 4th seed — and couldn't go anywhere else even if they tried. This is certainly an unfamiliar position for the Clippers, who've never been locked into a playoff spot so early in the CP3 era.
This means that they're also booked for a second-round tango in Oracle (San Antonio still has a mathematical chance of taking the first seed, but that scenario requires, among other unrealistic things, Memphis beating Golden State). Scary as that sounds, the matchup is less important to Doc Rivers than health and rest, two things he's put a heavy emphasis on this year.
That strategy has been wildly successful for the most part: Chris Paul is playing the fewest minutes per game of his career (while putting up his best scoring average since 2009), DeAndre Jordan's MPG is lower than it was in either of the previous two seasons (while he's had the best PPG output of his career), J.J. Redick's MPG hasn't been this low since 2012 (while he's matched last year's career-high output in PPG), and even Blake Griffin has the second-lowest MPG of his career.
With playoff seeding locked up, the rest of the regular season has little meaning to the Clippers apart from continuing to let Blake work his way back into game shape, and perhaps giving him some more reps with unfamiliar faces like Jeff Green and Cole Aldrich. The Clippers are an experienced, veteran team; they are who they are at this point, and the last four regular season games aren't going to change anything.
Prior to last night's rematch with the Lakers, Doc Rivers said that ideally his best players wouldn't travel or play in any of the remaining road games. It looks like he's sticking to that: the team traveled to Utah today for their game against the Jazz tomorrow night, leaving behind Paul, Redick, Griffin, Jordan, and Wesley Johnson (currently dealing with plantar fasciitis in both feet, a recurring issue he's mostly played through this season. Johnson, Austin Rivers, and Jamal Crawford also rested last night's game against the Lakers. Rivers (ankle) and Jeff Green (knee) are both traveling to Utah but seem unlikely to play tomorrow night.
So right now, the Clippers look like they'll only have eight guys available tomorrow night. The expected starting unit of Prigioni, Crawford, Pierce, Mbah a Moute, and Aldrich sounds more like a third-tier Rust Belt law firm than a viable NBA lineup, and against a tough, physical Jazz team fighting for a playoff spot, it seems like we're due for a certain blowout. The good news is that C.J. Wilcox and Branden Dawson (and Jeff Ayres!) are likely to get a ton of minutes.
Dawson's back with the team and played in garbage time last night after the LA city attorney's office dropped its domestic violence case against him (out of respect to all involved parties, I'd advise against any rampant speculation or assumptions).
Quick notes on last night's game:
— Blake Griffin had his best game back so far, finishing with 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 steals in just under 25 minutes. The shot still seems a little off, and to my untrained eyes it seems like he's reverted to his old habit of shooting jumpers on the way down again. But he seems to be more and more comfortable playing and doesn't seem to be bothered by the quad too much. He also had this to say today:
Blake Griffin said if his quad keeps feeling good like this he won't need surgery and that means he could still play in Olympics.— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) April 7, 2016
— Kobe had some impressive moves last night on LRMAM and DAJ, ending up with a relatively efficient (by this year's Mamba's standards) 17 on 19 shots. But DeAndre also did this to him.
— DeAndre also did this to poor Roy Hibbert.
— There wasn't much excitement to this game at all apart from the countdown on Kobe. The Clippers have won 11 straight and 15 of 16. Any rivalry between these two teams on the floor is in a deep hibernation. I miss when the Clippers still cared about punking the Lakers and walloped them by 40+ points.
Technically, Memphis is still the 5th seed. But at this point Portland has all but locked up the 5th seed, with only home games against Minnesota and Denver remaining. By the time the Grizzlies come to Staples Center next Tuesday, it'll probably be too late for any kind of tanking scheme to keep them afloat. Blazers-Clippers is happening.
The biggest loser of the Clippers punting the Jazz game? Dallas, who might still be the most likely team to end up on the outside of the playoff bracket looking in. They come to Staples for a Sunday matinee against what I assume will be a close-to-full-strength Clippers team, the core coming off three days' rest.
That game might be meaningless for the Clippers, but it's hard to think that they (DeAndre in particular) won't get up for this one. They might relish the chance to knock the Mavericks out of the playoffs and send Cuban home as sad as he was nine months prior.