At this point in the season, the Clippers have little room for error. Higher playoff seeding is ideal, and home court advantage would also be nice. Most importantly, though, are the dwindling opportunities to build confidence and momentum heading into the most important time of the year: the postseason.
Clippers came away with a win tonight, their 46th of the year. Blake Griffin led the way with 31 points, along with 7 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals in 38 minutes. Chris Paul, not far behind but far more impactful as a facilitator, had 29 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds, and 1 steal in 35 minutes. DeAndre Jordan was a menace on the glass, pulling down 17 rebounds, while posting 7 points, 3 blocks, and 2 assists in 35 minutes. The bench also combined for 34 points, led by Jamal Crawford’s 19. The month of March has been rough for the Clippers, who have played numerous back-to-back games, traveled many miles back and forth between road arenas and Staples Center, and logged 18 games in 30 days. In March, the Clippers have had 9 road games and 9 home games, going 10-8 during the month-long stretch. But they still aren’t passing the eye test.
At the risk of deflating the optimism the Clippers-faithful this time of year, it’s important to recognize their struggles as well as the reality that they very well may linger into the playoffs. The Clippers often bail themselves out by making well-contested, poorly-timed jumpers. Despite a front court with great potential offensively, they consistently struggle to rebound effectively and initiate higher-percentage shots in the paint. Much of this was evident tonight, as they allowed the Suns to score 118 points despite the absence of Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, and Tyson Chandler; it’s also worth noting that Devin Booker, who fouled out with 4:45 remaining in the game, was un-guardable most of the night. There’s some good news ahead, however.
The Clippers have one of the easiest schedules to close out the regular season. Whether or not they can capitalize upon it remains to be seen, but with just 5 remaining games over the course of the next 13 days, the opportunity is certainly present. And of the 5 remaining games, only 1 is on the road and 3 of them are against sub-.500 opponents. Only a single game separates the Clippers and the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference standings, with Clippers owning the tiebreaker. But the Clippers could be without Austin Rivers, arguably the team’s second best on-ball defender, until the postseason due to his hamstring injury. The Clippers have struggled defensively over the last month, and need to reach their full potential as soon as possible.
Once again, the Clippers scored poorly in the paint; of their 124 total points, only 22 came within the painted area. And once again, they allowed a lesser opponent to get whatever they wanted down low. The Suns, by contrast, scored 66 of their 118 total points in the paint, exactly 3 times the production of the Clippers in that particular area. There is simply no reason why this should continue to occur.
The Clippers have become seduced by the well-contested jump shot. Some nights they fall, some nights they don’t; it’s a make-or-miss league, and the difference in a good shooting night versus a bad shooting night often makes the difference in games for them. The Clippers have plenty of shooters, but the approach is unreliable. With an extremely athletic 4-5 starting combo in Griffin and Jordan, who shoot 48.7% and 70.9% from the field, respectively, there’s no reason to avoid pushing for interior offense. In fact, forcing double teams and causing opposing defenses to collapse inward, to stop the duo, allows the perimeter game to open up for the Clippers. It also allows them to build upon their already-high number of free throw opportunities.
As they often did tonight, the Clippers shooters operate off of an unhealthy combination of isolation jumpers at the tail end of shot clocks or off of tight screens that provide very little time and room in which to shoot. The Clippers shot 54.5% (12-of-22) from beyond the arc tonight, well beyond their season average of 37.6% from that range. This further illustrates the need to get the ball to the bigs, and to make the best of transition opportunities. And if Chris Paul, Austin Rivers, and Raymond Felton, all effective finishers around the rim, can play find ways to play downhill and uptempo when lanes are open, the Clippers become even more dangerous.
It Takes Everything
As they often have recently, the Clippers’ starting unit had to significantly lead the charge offensively. It’s certainly important that teams, especially those in the loaded Western Conference, can be top-heavy simply for the sake of keeping up. But depth has become a greater factor in the postseason, and most certainly will be against teams like the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and the Houston Rockets. Compared to many games during March, the team pulled together much more as a collective unit tonight. The Clippers only went five-deep on the bench tonight, scoring 34 points as a whole. And all but Anderson scored, while chipping in 8 rebounds and 6 assists in limited minutes (outside of Crawford, who played 27).
The Clippers appear to have established their postseason rotation, as evidenced tonight sans Rivers, who is out with a hamstring injury. Rivers will surely be in the mix, however, come playoff time. Made up of Paul, Griffin, Jordan, J.J. Redick, and Luc Mbah a Moute for the starters, and Crawford, Rivers, Felton, and Marreese Speights for the second unit, the Clippers can now operate the rest of the way largely as they would following April 12th. It will be interesting to see what substitutions and new wrinkles Doc Rivers and his staff may employ to prepare for the most anticipated time of the year.
There’s enough pessimism to go around, enough unsettling feelings about playoff challenges, and enough morning show narrative debate to leave many feeling shaky about the future of Clippers. If you feel frustrated, saddened, perhaps even a bit disappointed, you are not alone.
But don’t forget that a Clippers team at full health can be quite dangerous in a seven game series against anyone. They have shooting, dunking, athleticism, and plenty of savvy to navigate through the treacherous waters of the West. The Clippers may look tired, weary, and often lost at times, but anyone is prone to the same in a rough month following numerous injuries and chemistry disruption. April could be a good month for the Clippers, and what lies beyond could be great, even if we do have yet to witness it.
Los Angeles Lakers at L.A. Clippers
Saturday April 1, 2017 12:30pm PST
Staples Center, Los Angeles, CA
Fox Sports Prime Ticket, Spectrum SportsNet, AM 570, AM 710