Well, there you have it. The regular season is a thing of the past and the Clippers don’t have to worry about finding their way to Salt Lake City before their playoff run kicks off on Saturday night. The Jazz made them earn the four-seed, beating the Spurs in a close contest that wrapped up as the Clippers clung to a modest, six-point lead at the half. Whether the news trickled in that they did indeed need a win or it was just the case that shots started falling, the Clippers rode a strong second half to a no-doubt win over a Kings team that handed them their most recent loss eight games ago.
Both teams started cold from the field, but Luc Mbah a Moute and J.J. Redick were able to pick up the slack and get the offense jumpstarted in the first quarter. Both players pushed the tempo and attacked the paint aggressively, creating opportunities to score that were tough to come by given the slow starts from Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. DeAndre Jordan anchored the defense with two early blocks and had his way with Willie Cauley-Stein on the offensive end, finishing the quarter with seven points and seven rebounds.
Doc Rivers trotted out the all-bench unit to commence the second quarter, and Wesley Johnson made an impact with a nice dribble-drive to the hoop and some tough defense on Buddy Hield, who was hot from the field in the first. While the usual suspects were quiet offensively, Brandon Bass took advantage, playing hard and earning three trips to the line, ultimately putting up seven crucial points (in six minutes) that held Sacramento at bay. The Clippers ability to crash the offensive glass and get to the charity stripe were crucial in overcoming a poor shooting half, as the Kings made a living in the midrange, shooting over 50% from the field and keeping the score close, 53-47, heading into the break.
The opening minutes of the second half found it difficult for the Clippers to begin to pull away despite several big shots from Redick, but as the third quarter wore on, a more-assertive Paul kicked things into another gear and the floodgates opened. The Clippers outscored the Kings 22-12 in the final seven minutes of the quarter, and ultimately took an 87-73 lead into the final twelve minutes of the regular season.
Jamal Crawford scored 11 of his 13 points in the final quarter, and despite Lawler’s Law being activated on the Clippers’ behalf, Doc brought Blake and Chris back around the six-minute mark, not taking any chances after the fourth-quarter collapse that occurred just a couple of weeks ago.
Once the game was well out of reach and following a video tribute for his final regular season game, the raucous Staples Center crowd started a Paul Pierce chant so infectious that even Doc couldn’t help himself. With the whole arena clapping and shouting his name, Pierce had no choice but to hobble off the bench, rip off his tearaways, and enter the game. He went 0/2 and admitted after the game that he was reluctant to come in because he was stiff, but it was a special moment for a Clippers’ crowd that wanted to honor the exceptional career of the future first-ballot Hall of Famer.
- #StaggerWatch — It only took 82 games, but it sure seems like Doc has mostly embraced the staggering strategy as we head into the postseason. Though the all-bench lineup got some run for about 2:30 of game time to begin the second quarter, Doc subbed Blake out early (3:00 left) in the first quarter and brought him and Chris back early (9:30 left) in the second. In the third, DJ left at the three-minute mark, only to return at the beginning of the fourth quarter and play until the game was clearly in the bag. Doc seemed far more content to let two or three subs into the game to play alongside different combinations of starters, and it seemed to stabilize the squad. It should be incredibly interesting to monitor his substitution patterns as the rotation shortens moving forward.
- J.J. Joins an Elite Club — Redick made his 200th three-pointer of the season in the second quarter and finished the season with 201. This is the third consecutive season that he has reached the mark (amazingly, he hit 200 exactly each of the past two years), which makes him the fourth player to ever accomplish such a feat (joining Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and James Harden).
- Luc Mbah a Moute Doesn’t Get the Credit He Deserves — LRMAM had another exceptional game, playing hard-nosed, incessant defense and pouring in 14 points on 6/8 shooting (2/3 from downtown). He was aggressive and decisive on the offensive end, a trend that has developed down the home stretch of the season, as he finished the year with three double digit outings. Tonight’s victory pushed the Clippers record to 13-2 this season when he scores ten or more points. If he can provide similar production in the playoffs, the Clippers are going to be tough to stop.
- Mike Smith’s Questionable Movie Taste — Shortly after mistakenly calling Kings’ Greek rookie Georgios Papagiannis “Giannis Papagiannis,” Smith revealed that one of his all time favorite movies is Spanglish starring Adam Sandler. Now I’m an Adam Sandler fan, but Spanglish belongs nowhere near the word “favorite” in anybody’s vocabulary. He’s always good for one or two head-scratchers per broadcast, but this personal divulgence has to be atop his most random of the season. Never stop, Mike.
Attention now turns to the Utah Jazz, as Game 1 tips off Saturday night at 7:30 PST on ESPN. In mid-March when the Clippers had dropped three straight and questions swirled about what plagued the team, as health was no longer a valid excuse, it would’ve been hard to imagine a more encouraging end to the season. So much was made of the Clippers’ scorching hot start, and they were able to finish the season with just as much momentum, winning 10 of their last 12 and seven in a row. The offense is as efficient as ever and the defense has rounded back into form, as the Clips have held their last three opponents (Rockets and Spurs included) under 100 points. The Jazz are staunch defensively and very deep, but the Clippers are peaking at the right time and look poised to make things very tough on an inexperienced Utah team.