After winning their final four games heading into the All-Star Break, and getting the good news that Chris Paul is going to return ahead of schedule from a torn ligament in his thumb, the Clippers are probably feeling pretty good right now. The team has been stellar in games where both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have been healthy, and after an exhausting couple of months, the Clippers will hope for health and success in the final 25 games of the season.
That’ll have to start tomorrow, though, because tonight is going to be rough.
The Clippers are playing their final match-up of the season against the Golden State Warriors, a team that uses a hatred for L.A. and their best-team-in-history-ness to routinely beat down Doc Rivers’ squad. The Warriors have won the last nine editions of this match-up, and there’s not a ton of reason to expect tonight to be different. Chris Paul is missing what will hopefully be his last game out, and so the already-over-matched Clippers head into battle without their general.
For the Clippers to win tonight, the margin of error will be absurdly small, but here are a few things that absolutely have to happen:
- Don’t turn the ball over: The Warriors are the best offensive team in basketball. They’re gonna put up crazy points against a set half-court defense—you definitely don’t want to give them freebie dunks and layups that serve doubly as momentum-swingers.
- Grab defensive rebounds: Again, best offensive team in basketball. The more extra possessions they get, the more extra points they get. Also, it feels like Steph Curry always steps into open threes off of a kick-out from the offensive rebounder.
- Scramble on defense: The Warriors have a ton of shooters and set a ton of screens. You’ll need to switch, then double/trap or help to cover mismatches, and then rotate to cover shooters. There are gonna be plays where you can’t do anything to stop them, and you have to keep up the intensity for 48 minutes anyway.
- Hit shots: This is about as simple as it gets: you aren’t going to beat the Warriors in a 90-86 game. Yeah, you’ve gotta do your best on defense—but you also need to score with them to the best of your ability. A cold shooting night, or even a normal night, likely won’t cut it. Get hot from deep and you might be able to hang around.
- Dominate down low: The Clippers have steep disadvantages in all of the perimeter match-ups against the Warriors: Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are two of the best players in basketball, and the Clippers have a backup point guard and defensive specialist Luc Mbah a Moute in their starting lineup. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan (and, off the bench, Mo Speights) have to make up for that by outproducing Draymond Green and the lackluster frontcourt depth behind him. JaVale McGee outplayed Jordan in the last match-up, and that can’t happen again.
- Build a buffer: If everything goes right, and you’re hitting shots and playing good defense, it isn’t enough to be in the game in the final few minutes. The Clippers’ offense struggles late in games, and it’s a million times worse without Chris Paul. The Warriors, on the other hand, are notorious for being down 8-12 points in the fourth quarter, and exploding for a 23-4 run to ice a win. You’ve gotta give yourself some breathing room to even have a chance—a tie game in the fourth is probably a loss.
Here’s what’s most important for the Clippers tonight, though: morale. Losing a game that’s almost unwinnable won’t kill this team’s spirit, especially if Chris Paul returns for a big home win against the Spurs tomorrow night. They can lose this game and still catch Houston for the 3-seed in the Western Conference. Nothing is fatal about a 114-97 loss tonight. But if they get embarrassed by another 144-98 margin, it could cause mental problems both tomorrow night and beyond, as the team tries to fight for seeding and potentially faces these Warriors in the post-season.