The Clippers took care of business this week, as convincing victories over the Magic and Lakers maintained a perfect start to 2017 and drove their (current league-best) winning streak to six games, a merciful reversal from the six-game slide that brought 2016 to a close. Chris Paul has continued to be magnificent in his return from injury, all but locking in his all-star candidacy in what would be a tenth straight appearance, and Blake Griffin, whose recovery is reportedly right on schedule, should be back on the court soon, as tomorrow marks four weeks removed from a surgery with an initial timetable of 4-6 weeks. He can’t return soon enough for a team that appears to be hitting its stride with plenty of time left to work out the kinks before the playoffs.
Aside from an impressive, short-handed victory over the Grizzlies, the Clippers haven’t had any marquee victories during their streak, but the on-court product has appeared sharp against lesser opponents. Evidenced by a league-leading 97.3 defensive rating over that stretch, January’s cushy home schedule seems to have revitalized this group on the defensive end, a development that should be put to the test as the slate toughens leading up to two matchups against the Warriors in the not-so-distant future. As is to be expected, the Clippers look like a different team on the offensive end with Chris Paul back in the fold, and with DeAndre Jordan playing like a man truly embracing Kevin Garnett’s tutelage (14.7 PTS, 18.0 REBS, 72.5% FG in his last six), this week’s rankings have the Clippers on the rise yet again.
ESPN (Marc Stein) - 7 Last Week: 9
The same team that lost its final six games of 2016 has launched its 2017 by winning six in a row, good for the league's longest active winning streak; when comparing the two stretches, the Clippers have been fueled by a dramatic improvement defensively. Tuesday, meanwhile, marks a full four weeks since Blake Griffin was shelved to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Doc Rivers said Griffin is progressing "great," which means a return by month's end is in play. The Clippers' limited trade assets, by comparison, mean that as much as Rivers would like to strengthen his roster, it's going to be tough for L.A. to make an impactful move. So maybe the closest thing to that has already happened; Kevin Garnett has officially signed on as a part-time Clips coaching consultant to work with their big men.
NBA.com (John Schuhmann) - 7 LW: 7
The Clippers are the only unbeaten team and have the league's best defense in 2017. In his four games back from his hamstring injury, Chris Paul has averaged 17.8 points and 12.3 assists and the Clippers have outscored their opponents by 25.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. The schedule is about to get tougher; The Thunder are in town on Monday and Saturday's game in Denver begins a stretch where they play 10 of 11 games on the road. But Tuesday marks the four-week point since Blake Griffin was ruled out for 4-6 weeks after knee surgery.
NBC Sports (Kurt Helin) - 5 LW: 10
Winners of six in a row (they have yet to lose in 2017), this team is playing well again and they should be getting Blake Griffin back relatively soon. Yes, they are beating below .500 teams (save Memphis) and have a home heavy schedule, but what good teams do is beat the teams below them. Chris Paul is averaging 17.8 points and 12.3 assists per game since his return, and the Clippers are destroying teams when he is on the court.
CBS Sports (Matt Moore) - 7 LW: 11
So much for that struggle without Blake Griffin. He's back practicing without a brace and the Clippers have rattled off six in a row in the meantime to recapture the 4th spot. Their February schedule is a hellish, though. Is it too early to say they're already out of it for a top-two seed?
Sports Illustrated (Jeremy Woo) - 9 LW: 11
Don’t look now, but the Clippers are a perfect 6–0 in a home-heavy January. Blake Griffin could be back soon. But before you start to think about it, no, they aren’t a better team without him.
The Clippers seem to be smack dab in between both groups of legitimate Western Conference playoff teams, having leapfrogged the Jazz, Thunder, and Grizzlies, but not yet able to catch up with the Warriors, Spurs, and Rockets, just as the standings would dictate. The fact that they’ve managed to differentiate themselves from that lower half of the West playoff scene without Blake in the lineup is certainly encouraging, and with him back in the picture sooner rather than later, they should only cement their status as a top-four seed (though I’m keeping a watchful eye on those stealthy Jazz).
Around the league, the Warriors stint away from the top spot didn’t last long, as they seem to be the consensus number-one squad thanks to uneven weeks from the rest of the top dogs. With games against Cleveland (tonight) and the Rockets (Friday) on the docket this week, however, we could be seeing another shake-up to the top of the rankings by next Monday. Also, shouts to the 76ers, who have won five of their last seven and scrapped their way out of the Power Rankings cellar thanks to the transcendently entertaining, Joel Embiid.
The Clippers take on the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight (check out Max Jeffrey’s game preview here) and the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday before traveling to Denver to take on the Nuggets to kick off a monstrous Grammy road trip that includes ten of eleven games on the road (and the one home game comes against, who else, the Warriors). All three are winnable, particularly if the Clips stay locked in on the defensive end, and with the competition for a top-three seed in the West increasingly intense, Doc Rivers’ squad can’t afford many slip ups in the coming weeks.