The Big Picture
Maybe it just took a not-so-friendly matchup with the Grizzlies, but the Clippers finally looked like the Clippers again in a resounding victory over a Memphis group that is searching for answers. After a slew of uneven efforts, this was certainly the Clippers most complete ballgame since the All-Star Break, as a balanced showing from the starters and an inspired bench performance never left the outcome in doubt. With only 17 games remaining in the regular season, this seems to be the perfect time for a finally healthy Clippers squad to find a groove and gear up for a much-anticipated playoff run.
When it comes to the playoff picture, the Clippers seem to have entrenched themselves firmly in the five-seed following the win in Memphis, as they lead both the Grizz and the Oklahoma City Thunder by three games. They currently trail the Utah Jazz by two games for home-court advantage in what looks like an inevitable first round matchup, but that’s well within striking distance. With two more matchups with the Jazz on the horizon and the Clippers looking as though they’ve begun to work out some of the kinks on both sides of the ball, there’s no reason to believe that they won’t challenge for the four-seed. In a shocking development, the most intriguing playoff race to watch is at the top of the standings, where the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs are jostling for the top seed in a late season race that will have far-reaching implications for the prospects of all Western Conference contenders (a.k.a. those hoping to avoid the Warriors for as long as possible).
If the Clippers have indeed begun to turn a corner, they should be licking their chops as the injury-riddled Philadelphia 76ers come to town. The Sixers are (unfortunately) without fan-favorite, Joel Embiid, and a deadline deal with the Dallas Mavericks that shipped Nerlens Noel out of town has left them miserably thin in the frontcourt — just ask the Portland Trail Blazers’ Jusuf Nurkic, who had the game of his life on Thursday night, swatting away weak attempts at the rim and facing little resistance on the offensive end from lead-footed Jahlil Okafor.
Short on talent, but not on hustle, the 76ers are having their most successful season since 2012-2013. Gregg Popovich disciple, Brett Brown, has garnered plenty of respect for what he’s been able to do with such a young team that has been stricken with injuries from the outset. Led by rookie Dario Saric and the underrated Robert Covington, the Sixers are scrappy and absolutely dangerous if overlooked. They’ve lost six of their last seven, but have a knack for hanging in games and will do everything in their power to make tomorrow’s matinee very tough on the Clippers.
- Big Night for Blake Griffin? — If Nurkic’s offensive explosion was any indication, the 76ers are vulnerable against strong, skilled big men - sound familiar? In the six games since his 43-10-5 obliteration of the Charlotte Hornets, Blake has been relatively quiet on the offensive end, only averaging 18.3 points. I have a feeling that underwhelming trend won’t be around for much longer, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see BG threaten for a triple double.
- Push the Pace — There’s a reason that you can often see Doc flailing his arms on the sideline and yelling for the Clippers to get up the court; the Clippers play well when they play fast. While they don’t always do so (17th in the league in pace), the 76ers do. They run the 6th-fastest offense in the league, and an uptempo game will likely favor the Clippers. If LA can limit turnovers and get out and run in transition, this game could be over early.
- Rookie of the Year? — Though we won’t be seeing Joel Embiid, the guy who would’ve run away with the award had he been able to play more than 31 games, his teammate Dario Saric is staking his own claim to ROY honors with his stellar play in the second half of the season. The 6’10’’ stretch four found his three-point stroke and just scorched the Blazers for a career-high 28 points. If he continues to put up over 20 points per game while contributing on the boards and as a playmaker, Saric just may end up the 2016-2017 Rookie of the Year.
- The Bench is Alive — After a lackluster stretch that was saved from being truly awful by some Jamal Crawford heroics, the bench was very productive against the Grizzlies. Jamal scored an efficient 14 points (5/9 from the field), Raymond Felton added 11 of his own, and Austin Rivers was absolutely huge with 20/5/4 in 32 minutes. He was aggressive finding ways into the paint and energized a second unit that had so often come out of the gates flat in recent games. Good news in this matchup, as the 76ers are the third-worst bench defense in the league, giving up 45.8 points per game to opposing benches.
None other than Philly’s own Hall and Oates, who recently announced their own music festival entitled HoagieNation. If that doesn’t scream Philadelphia, I don’t know what does.
Check out the Sixers’ SB Nation site, Liberty Ballers, and keep an eye out for the GameThread so you can comment along during the game!