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2017 NBA Playoffs: The Clippers Shouldn’t Need an April Wake-Up Call

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It’s a little too late, and the margin for error is a little too small.

NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Clippers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The L.A. Clippers are probably fine.

Even though they lost game 1 at home last night to the Utah Jazz, and even though they played uninspired basketball for much of the game, and even though they lost on a Joe Johnson buzzer-beater after letting the veteran reserve lead the Jazz in scoring—the Clippers are probably fine.

We know that the Clippers match up very well with the Utah Jazz—they had won 18 of the last 21 regular-season matchups and played very well this year en route to a 3-1 season series victory. We know that Rudy Gobert is hurt—the strong Defensive Player of the Year candidate went down just seconds into game 1, and seems likely to miss more games with a hyperextended knee and bone bruise.

The Clippers need to win four of their next six games to advance. Given the match-up, and the injury to Gobert, they are more than capable of accomplishing that task. In fact, if L.A. plays at their best, they could feasibly win the next four games and still get out of this series in 5 games. After all, game 1 is only one game—and while one game carries increased meaning in a best-of-7 series, it certainly doesn’t undo months and years of trends and knowledge about the capabilities of a unit.

The problem isn’t whether or not the Clippers are capable of still winning this series against the Jazz, but whether or not they’ll actually do it. Just like there was no question whether or not the Clippers should have won last night—even with Gobert, but especially without him—but the question was whether or not they’d actually do it. While it’s easy to dismiss some of the Clippers’ struggles this season as a result of injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin which cost each star a quarter of this season, there’s also truth to the storyline that a lack of focus cost L.A. games throughout the season.

Yesterday, Amar from SLCDunk.com tweeted that he hadn’t seen enough LAC games this season to know what their weaknesses are. My response summed up the two factors that kept the Clippers’ win total down:

Being hurt all the time mattered. Of LAC’s 82 games, they played 32 with only one of their stars, and 10 with neither. In those 32 games, they went 16-16. In the 10 where both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were sidelined, the Clippers went 3-7, with five losses coming to lottery teams. That means that they were 35-15 in the games where Paul and Griffin both appeared (a 57-win pace that would have given them the 3-seed), and 48-24 in games where at least one appeared (a 55-win pace that would have tied them with the Rockets).

The thing is, you can’t control being hurt. It’s why we gave the Clippers a pass for their first-round loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, where being the heavy favorites didn’t matter once Paul and Griffin were each lost to season-ending injuries in Game 4. It’s largely why they’ve escaped criticism for falling well short of this season’s lofty expectations.

What you can control is the other factor that a bluntly listed in my above tweet, before I knew that I’d be building an article around the inarticulate expression: not giving a shit.

It’s something that plagued the Clippers all season long. The extended absences for Paul and Griffin sparked a lethargic attitude for DeAndre Jordan in what could have been a moment of opportunity for the big man. As a result, the entire team’s morale suffered, sparking the unit’s 1-5 record against sub-.500 teams. Still, that can all be explained away by the injury issue, because those losses came shorthanded.

What’s a little more damning is that during the middle stretch of the season—between Thanksgiving and March 15th—the Clippers struggled even when Paul and Griffin were both active. All 32 of the team’s games without one or both of their stars came in that stretch, and while the team’s 16-16 shorthanded record might be defensible, their 11-12 record in games where both stars played is not. Those 12 losses include plenty of winnable games, including double-digit road losses in Detroit and Indiana, a home loss to the same Pacers a week later, and a late collapse to the Washington Wizards. In March, the healthy Clippers managed to lose by double-digits to Milwaukee, Minnesota, and Denver, while also dropping one-possession games at the buzzer to the Bucks, Mavericks, and Kings.

Now, every team has some bad losses. The Golden State Warriors lost games to teams like the Lakers, Kings, and Timberwolves this season. The Houston Rockets stumbled in January and February, losing twice each to the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers. The Clippers aren’t alone in having some embarrassing turns of the schedule, and quite frankly no team goes through an 82-game season without their share of flat nights and bad losses.

The problem is that the Clippers had more than their share. They lost 13 games to teams with losing records, compared to 4 each for the Warriors and Rockets and 6 each for the Spurs and Jazz. In fact, the Clippers, who tied for the NBA’s 5th-best record, had the most losses to bad teams of any team with a top 10 record. In the last two seasons combined, the Clippers lost a total of 11 games to teams under .500.

There’s no statistic that measures how much a team cares about a given game. We can’t scientifically prove focus or preparation (or lack thereof). It’s one reason why “wanted it more” is one of the most overused and annoying phrases in sports analysis. But perhaps some measurements can indicate a lack of focus or preparation, and when combined with the months of lackluster basketball that I watched with my own eyes, the above numbers detailing the Clippers’ struggles against bad teams certainly seem to indicate just that.

Now, the Utah Jazz aren’t a bad team. Even with Gobert out, they don’t fall into the category of embarrassing losses where we can remember the Clippers falling to the Brooklyn Nets and blowing an 18-point lead to the Sacramento Kings in the final 5 minutes. They probably fall more closely into the category of those losses to the Pacers and Bucks—games that you’ll understandably lose over the course of an 82-game season, but should really win when you’re locked in.

The reason the Clippers lost game 1 was because they weren’t really locked in. And not being locked in is a far, far bigger issue than losing game 1 was. They’ll need to improve their focus and preparation in order to realize their potential of coming back and winning this series, but even if they advance, the lack of sharp offensive execution and in-game adjustments last night will remain troubling.

When the Clippers blew that lead to the Kings three weeks ago, it was a wake-up call for a team that was still playing lethargic basketball despite winning four of their last five games. Immediately, we saw increased intensity from the Clippers, who went on to win their last seven games of the season and earn homecourt in the first round of the playoffs. Three weeks before the playoffs is probably an acceptable time for a wake-up call, just in time for the team to start refining their rotations and get rolling to be playing a high level when the postseason rolls around.

After last night, I’ve seen talk that a game 1 loss is the wake-up call the Clippers needed. I’m not a fan of that mindset.

The Clippers, in their sixth season and ninth playoff series together, just three weeks removed from their last wake-up call, should not need to mismanage a home playoff game just to sharpen themselves up. They might be able to get away with it against the Jazz (although we don’t yet know how much an extended series will cost them in terms of rest and health), but they certainly can’t afford to lay an egg in the second round against the Warriors.

It shouldn’t be difficult to realize that Rudy Gobert’s absence should have sparked aggressive drives to the rim. It shouldn’t be difficult for Chris Paul to look to score more than 5 points in the first half as L.A.’s offense stalled. A veteran team should not struggle to exploit Joe Johnson guarding Blake Griffin in the post, but the Clippers’ spacing collapsed and they let double-teams stall their third-quarter offense. Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick, the former having just received an 8-figure payday and the latter seeking his own this summer, should have combined for something better than 15 points on 7-18 FG, 1-7 3PT, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 6 turnovers. The Clippers shouldn’t need an April wake-up call.

March 26th’s against the Kings was like a 10:00 AM wake-up call: sure, it’s a little late, and maybe you’d be up earlier if you had your life together, but you had a rough night and got in late. Last night was a noon wake-up call: you already missed your 11:00 AM conference call and now you’re running late to the airport. Missing the call could haunt you, and you’re going to have a stressful few hours as you race to your flight, but you can still salvage your day.

If the Clippers don’t drag themselves out of bed at noon, it’s hard to see them making it to the airport in time for their flight.