On Wednesday night, the Clippers and Rockets face off on ESPN in what could be a defining game for both teams’ seasons. If the Rockets win, it would take a catastrophe for them to lose the third seed, and the Clippers would be either facing a second-round match-up with the Warriors or the prospect of strategically dropping to 6th or 7th in the conference and going on the road in the second round just to avoid that match-up. If the Clippers win, it might not end up mattering, but it could be the beginning of the run that propels them to the much-desired third seed, securing home-court in the first round and allowing them to avoid the Warriors in the second.
If it seems like I’m forgetting something, it’s because I am. The Utah Jazz are still, of course, very much in the picture. They’re actually one game closer to Houston in the loss column than the Clippers are, but for now I don’t see them as serious contenders for the 3rd seed. They’ve had a strong season but I don’t have any reason to think that they’ll be able to pick up the pace and close that gap with the Rockets. It’s worth noting, though, that they are currently tied 1-1 in the head-to-head with Houston, so if they win that last game they’ll have the tiebreaker should Houston hit a severe slump.
Here’s why I’m largely ignoring the Jazz: the Clippers have two games left against them, and L.A. essentially needs to win both to have the kind of hot streak that they need to catch the Rockets. As long as catching Houston is the goal, we can assume that Utah won’t be up there if the Clippers make it. If the 3-seed becomes impossible, then the Jazz obviously become a primary focus as the Clippers’ likeliest first-round opponent.
For now, though, it’s all about winning enough games—and the Rockets losing enough games—to secure the still-within-reach third spot. This is largely going to be a schedule analysis, but the most important factor for LAC is obviously playing well. They’ll have tons of winnable games to maximize their chances, but they’re going to have to catch fire throughout the month of March to close the gap, and they’re going to have to beat the Rockets on Wednesday for a winning streak to even matter.
Once these teams get through their March schedules, it’s likely that any scenario where the Clippers win the third seed will have to come down to April. That’s when these teams face off for the final time in the regular season, on April 10th, in each team’s second-to-last game. If the Clippers win on Wednesday, and get hot in March to catch up to Houston, it will all be to create a situation where the winner of that final game finishes in third place.
So, how do the Clippers get to that spot where April 10th defines their season? It starts with the first Houston game on Wednesday, the first in a 16-games-in-26-nights stretch of schedule. Here’s how those 26 days look:
vs HOU, off, @ MIL, @ CHI, off, vs BOS, off, @ MIN, @ MEM, off, vs PHI, off, @ UTA, off, vs MIL, @ DEN, off, vs CLE, off, vs NYK, @ LAL, off, vs DAL, off, vs UTA, vs SAC
The Clippers play just 7 of those 16 games against teams above .500, and one is against the Bulls, who are just 30-29. The toughest opponents, record-wise, are the Rockets and Cavaliers, and the Clippers get off days going into both of those games. They play the Bulls and Grizzlies on the second night of back-to-backs, but the Bulls should be beatable even with that rest factor, even if the Grizzlies game becomes unlikely.
The other 3 games in this stretch against good teams are vs Boston and in Utah, both sandwiched by rare days off, and a home game against the Jazz at the front end of the stretch’s final back-to-back. Fortunately for the Clippers, the Celtics will be on the second night of a back-to-back for that game, and Utah routinely struggles against L.A., posting 75 and 72 points in the teams’ two contests this season. Those two Clippers wins are part an 15-1 domination of the Jazz during the Chris Paul era—including a road win late last season where the Clippers’ starters rested and their reserves bested a motivated Jazz team fighting for a playoff berth.
Assuming the Clippers can get hot and take care of business in the 9 games against lottery teams (staving off potential upsets to Milwaukee, who has toppled a few good teams), they should be able to beat Boston and take both games against Utah. They also have to beat the Rockets for any of this to matter—that already gives them 13 wins in this stretch, with the other three games being against Chicago, Memphis, and Cleveland. If I had to bet, I’d predict a win vs Chicago and losses to Memphis and Cleveland—that’s 14-2 in this 16-game stretch. Obviously this is a best-case scenario, but it’s definitely in play.
After that patch of schedule, the Clippers close their season with 7 spread-out games, including 4 against lottery teams. They should definitely secure wins against Phoenix, the Lakers, Dallas, and Sacramento. The other three games are against the Wizards (who will be on the second night of a back-to-back), the Spurs (who will be on the second night of a back-to-back), and the Rockets (who will be on the second night of a back-to-back). That’s a pretty good outlook, no? It’s totally possible for LAC to go 7-0 in that stretch, though I think 6-1 is more likely, since the Spurs could rest their starters on the first night of their back-to-back, and then gun for LAC to avoid that second-round match-up.
So, the Clippers could close the season 20-3. That’s pretty good, right? Yup, and it’s the kind of hot finish that they’ll need in order to catch the Rockets, since Houston will need five more losses than L.A. in order for the teams to finish in a tie, and the Clippers to claim the 3-seed on head-to-head tiebreaker.
That means that in order for LAC’s hot run to matter, Houston will need 8 losses. The Rockets have 22 games remaining. We already gave them two losses in their two games to the Clippers, and they play the Golden State Warriors twice, which is likely to be two more losses. So in the 18 other games, Houston needs to go 14-4. They have games left against Cleveland, Utah, San Antonio, Memphis, Oklahoma City, and Chicago. The Clippers will need them to either struggle in those six games, or drop games to sub-.500 teams like Indiana (tonight), New Orleans (2 match-ups), Denver (3 match-ups), or Portland.
The potential for the three seed is definitely there. The hopes are alive. But it’s going to take near-perfection from the Clippers, starting with a win on Wednesday and continuing with a month free of letdowns the likes of which L.A. has been remarkably prone to this season.