Heading into 2018, the Clippers aren’t quite where they thought they’d be before the season began. Going huge chunks of time without starters Patrick Beverley, Milos Teodosic, Danilo Gallinari, and Blake Griffin, the Clippers have frankly needed to overachieve just to reach their current 16-19 record. Now, though, they’re finally in a position where a playoff push seems not just theoretically possible, but somewhat likely. With Griffin and Teodosic back in the lineup and stunning contributions from Austin Rivers and the newly-named Western Conference Player of the Week, Lou Williams, the team is just one loss out of the 8th spot in the West. More encouraging, though, is the general weakness of the Western Conference playoff race: the 5th-place team in the conference has 17 losses, leaving the Clippers well within striking distance to climb up the standings in January.
Their first test will be the struggling Memphis Grizzlies, a team at the bottom of the standings that has managed to best the Clippers twice so far this season. The first came in early November, when the Grizzlies had not yet imploded (and, to be fair, the Clippers’ lineup was missing just Teodosic). The second, and more frustrating of the two losses, came December 23rd when, riding the high of a huge win over the Houston Rockets the night before, the Clippers dropped the ball in Memphis. Austin Rivers had a career-best 38 points on 14-20 from the field, and Lou Williams erupted for 36 points of his own, but the rest of the team fell flat. With little help, Rivers and Williams were unable to pull out a victory, with Tyreke Evans posting 30 points, 11 assists, and 7 rebounds.
Tonight’s game is, similarly to the December 23rd match-up, one that the Clippers ought to come away with. However, Doc Rivers issued a warning Sunday night after the Clippers defeated the Charlotte Hornets: once a team beats you twice, they feel like they have you figured out. A game against the Clippers could inspire some confidence in a Memphis locker room that hasn’t had a lot of reasons to feel good this season. It’s crucial for the Clippers to come into this game focused and take care of business, because more difficult match-ups loom ahead: Oklahoma City comes to town on Thursday, and the Clippers play the Warriors twice in the coming days. Upset losses to Memphis or Atlanta during this stretch would be devastating for a team that needs to be in position.
Austin Rivers is questionable for tonight’s game, so if he isn’t able to go, look for either Jawun Evans or Wesley Johnson to get the nod in the starting lineup. Evans started last game alongside Milos Teodosic, but struggled with fouls and only played 14 minutes. Expect Doc Rivers to keep Lou Williams in his reserve role (Teodosic-Williams is a scary pairing defensively anyway), leaving Sindarius Thornwell as the only other available guard. Thornwell has been inconsistent all season, and on Sunday, Doc Rivers at times preferred a lineup with C.J. Williams at shooting guard and Wesley Johnson at small forward. Johnson had an atrocious December (25% from the field and 8% from deep on 10 appearances) but he appears to still have Doc Rivers’ trust.
Defensively, the Clippers will need to focus their efforts on Tyreke Evans and, of course, Marc Gasol. Evans is playing at a level we haven’t seen since his rookie season, averaging almost 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists. Gasol, on the other hand, has been relatively disengaged this season and could be moved by the trade deadline. Still, he’s one of the most talented players in the NBA. The Grizzlies’ supporting cast is fairly low-quality compared to most NBA teams, so if the Clippers are able to successfully stifle Evans and Gasol, Memphis won’t be able to get much going.