The Big Picture
The playoffs are mere days away and, as they’ve made a habit of doing to close seasons in recent years, the Clippers are once again playing great basketball. A drubbing of the Houston Rockets on Monday gave them ten victories in their last twelve games, and the hot streak has put them in control of their playoff destiny. Though the Utah Jazz have been the likely first-round opponent for weeks, the home-court advantage battle still stands to be determined in both team’s final games of the season. The scenario is simple: a Clippers win over the Kings OR a Jazz loss to the Spurs gives the Clips the four-seed. One or the other happens (or both, of course) and we’re looking at Game 1 in Los Angeles this weekend. Only with a Clippers loss AND a Jazz win would the team have to board a flight to Salt Lake City to begin its playoff journey.
While the Clippers have been on a tear, their most recent loss was to none other than the Sacramento Kings. You may remember it as the 18-point, fourth quarter collapse that had Clippers fans suffering from traumatic flashbacks — just with less Corey Brewer and Josh Smith, and more Langston Galloway and Buddy Hield. It was as bad a loss as the Clippers have had all season and they should be motivated to put this Kings team away early. If they can, they’ll enter the postseason on a seven game win streak.
Interestingly, the Jazz and Spurs will tip off a full hour and a half before the Clippers and Kings, so the Clippers will likely know whether or not they need a win to secure the four-seed by halftime. If Utah does slip up and drop the game, look for Doc Rivers to get his starters some rest and be prepared for a lot of Paul Pierce. Unfortunately, we can’t have one without the other.
The Kings fully committed to a lengthy rebuild when they finally pulled the trigger and flipped DeMarcus Cousins to the Pelicans during the All-Star Break. With the enigmatic big man out of the picture, they have turned their focus to developing young talent, such as Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere, and Willie Cauley-Stein. While they have struggled mightily since trading their long-time franchise cornerstone, the Kings have managed to win five of their last nine games, as Hield has shown flashes of the talent that made him a star in college and the sixth pick of last year’s draft. He still has a long way to go to live up to Vivek Ranadive’s delusional expectations, but the Bahamian rookie has certainly turned heads in his brief stint in Sacramento.
The Kings have only pride to play for in tonight’s game, but if their furious comeback of just over two weeks ago is any indication, they surely wouldn’t mind putting an end to the Clippers’ hopes of earning home-court advantage. They are overmatched from a talent perspective, but Dave Joerger has them playing tough basketball and if they heat up from deep, as they did the last time around, the Clippers will need to be careful not to overlook the pesky Kings.
- The Tank is On — The Kings don’t have an upcoming playoff run that would require them to rest their players, but they do have a valuable draft pick to protect. They rested four key players in last night’s win over Phoenix (one of the few teams tanking harder than Sactown) and may require more to remain in their street clothes if they’re concerned about the possibility of losing their top-ten protected pick to Chicago (though that would take an extraordinary amount of bad luck). However, as it’s the last game of the season, I expect to see the Kings close to full strength, hoping to play spoiler to the Clippers four-seed prospects.
- Everyone’s Favorite Prince — Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is far from one of the Clippers’ most heralded players, but his impact on the court is undeniable. Long thought to be a liability come playoff time due to his struggles on the offensive end, LRMAM has shown this year that teams will have to respect him on both ends of the court, not just as a stalwart defender. He’s scored in double digits in the Clippers’ last two games, something he hadn’t done even once since early March, and the Clippers will need his confidence to be high if they’re going to make a real run in the playoffs this year.
- Rotation Still in Flux — Austin Rivers’ injury has shaken up the normal bench unit, which has forced Doc’s hand when it comes to staggering the starters. It remains to be seen what sticks come playoff time (hopefully he recognizes that it’s absurd to not always have one of Chris Paul or Blake Griffin on the court at all times), but it seems as though Doc is still experimenting with different lineup combinations, recently opting for Wesley Johnson, Paul Pierce, or Brandon Bass on different nights with no discernible rhyme or reason. While the rotation should shorten in the postseason, Doc has still shown a tendency to lean on his bench unit, and at this point there’s no way to be sure who’s going to get the call. Tonight’s game may be an interesting preview of what Doc is thinking — both in terms of starter substitution patterns and help off the pine.
To be entirely honest, I’ve never been much of a Cake fan, but seeing as Sacramento isn’t exactly a music haven, the selection isn’t overwhelmingly impressive. Here’s what we’re all hoping the Clippers can do this playoff season: