In one of the least compelling games between two playoff teams that has ever been played, the Clippers were gifted an easy victory by the weary Cavaliers on Saturday. That win broke a three-game losing streak, but failed to resolve any of the troubling questions that plague this once-dominant squad. (Remember 14-2? I don’t really, either). With only twelve games left on the schedule, the Clippers are running out of time to come up with answers. They’ve shown that they have the talent to compete with anyone (save for the Warriors), and yet they haven’t been able to click since weathering a flurry of injuries and finding themselves back at full strength. With so much riding on this year’s playoff run, it’s now or never for this team to lock in an identity and play some consistent, winning basketball.
Just as the Clippers on-court performance, this week’s batch of power rankings are all over the place. Without further ado...
ESPN (Marc Stein) - 12 Last Week: 8
Holding off Oklahoma City and Memphis to retain the West's No. 5 seed is the Clippers' top priority at the minute, especially because last week's loss to the Jazz -- who are lined up to be LA's first-round opponent if it can stay fifth in the conference -- was just their second to Utah in the teams' past 19 meetings. That's a first-round matchup that the Clips, even without home-court advantage, will believe they can win. But they also are playing to avoid a slice of unwanted history. Of the 45 other teams in history that began the season at 14-2 or better through 16 games, only two finished the season with a winning percentage below .600: Seattle in 1982-83 (48-34, .585) and Indiana in 2002-03 (48-34, .585). The Clippers are on course to make it three unless they finish strong, with Blake Griffin in particular in the midst of a March that falls below his standards thanks to a recent run of five straight games short of the 20-point plateau.
NBA.com (John Schuhmann) - 11 LW: 9
Though they have a five-game week (with two back-to-backs) coming up, the Clippers have the West's easiest remaining schedule. With the Cavs giving their stars the night off on Saturday, that schedule was made even easier, the Clippers ended their three-game losing streak, and they stayed within striking distance of the fourth-place Jazz. They lost in Utah on Monday, with the Jazz shooting 11-for-12 from 3-point range in the second half, but have the last head-to-head meeting in L.A. on Saturday. With Wesley Johnson shooting 3-for-17 from 3-point range since the All-Star break (and 26 percent for the season), Paul Pierce has played in two straight games for the first time since Christmas.
NBC Sports (Kurt Helin) - 9 LW: 8
Los Angeles lost three in a row, but caught a break when Cleveland decided to rest their stars for a night on Saturday. The good news for Clippers fans is they have a soft schedule the rest of the way, which should help them hold off sixth-seeded OKC. The Clippers are two games back of the Jazz for the four seed and would need to beat them Saturday night in Los Angeles to have a shot at catching them and getting home court in the first round.
CBS Sports (Matt Moore) - 15 LW: 12
Sorry, you don't get credit for beating the shell of the Cavaliers on Saturday. They've lost three of four, but Utah's struggles have left the door open for them to take the No. 4 seed, still. Their Saturday matchup vs. Utah is going to be crucial for them. Bigger than that, though, they need to get themselves in a place where they're not disgusted with their play, as they have been lately.
Sports Illustrated (Jeremy Woo) - 12 LW: 11
The Doc Rivers exit rumors have begun, it’s impossible to know what we’re getting on a nightly basis, and the Clippers are the post-season’s boom-or-bust archetype yet again. Clippers gonna Clip.
You know the Clippers are in a strange place when even I don’t have the motivation to argue with Matt Moore’s weekly skewering. He is right in pointing out that Saturday’s matchup against the Jazz has far-reaching implications beyond just the full game that the Clippers stand to pick up in the standings. It’s one of the last truly consequential games on the schedule, as the other two remaining dates with playoff opponents (Spurs and Rockets) take place well into April when the top three seeds may already be determined and their stars may be resting. If the Clippers want to send a message to the rest of the league that they’ll be a force in the playoffs, it’s going to take a decisive victory that gives them the tiebreaker over Utah.
As noted by John Schuhmann, the Clippers have the easiest remaining schedule in the West the rest of the way, and for confirmation, look no further than this week leading up to Saturday’s game. The Clippers will take on the tanking Knicks and the really-tanking Lakers on a back-to-back tonight and tomorrow, then the suddenly-competent Mavericks on Thursday. If there was any week to run the table then punctuate it with a meaningful victory, this looks like it could be the one.
As Marc Stein notes, the Clippers are in danger of joining the 1982-83 Sonics and 2002-03 Pacers as only the third team to ever start the season 14-2, yet ultimately fail to crack the .600 mark. They’ll need to go 9-3 the rest of the way (50-32 = .610) to avoid such a distinction, a run that feels far more possible when scanning the schedule than when reflecting on the level of play since the All-Star Break. Still, as new Clippers’ consultant Kevin Garnett has made us all well-aware, anything is possible.