Just when things were starting to go well for the Clippers—a stretch of easy games to get them back into the playoff race, Blake Griffin returning early from injury, even a small winning streak—the most unfortunate circumstances crashed the party.
We would have been fools to expect anything different.
In short order, starters Austin Rivers, Milos Teodosic, and Blake Griffin fell from the lineup, one after the other sustaining unlucky, strange, and vague injuries.
An ankle injury to Rivers was originally ruled an Achilles strain, which was then changed to a “posterior right ankle impingement” before now being simply called a “right ankle injury.” He was supposed to only miss a few days, perhaps returning last Tuesday for the Clippers’ game against the Memphis Grizzlies, but unexpected discomfort led the team to shut him down for two weeks. He’ll now be re-evaluated in about a week, with no indication of how long his absence could stretch beyond that date.
Teodosic, who has missed the better part of the first half of the season with a plantar fascia injury, aggravated the ailment to his foot after just 9 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder last week, and is day-to-day. Since returning to the lineup in December, Teodosic has missed a couple of games due to “injury management”—that is, resting to ease the load on a foot injury that he had not fully recovered from. When asked if that was the case when Teodosic missed Saturday’s game against the Golden State Warriors, Doc Rivers said no—Milos wasn’t able to play. He’s technically listed as questionable for this game against the Hawks, but Doc said on Saturday that he was very unlikely to play against Atlanta.
And in the most random and unfortunate injury the Clippers have suffered all season, Blake Griffin took a brutal elbow to the temple from Warriors center JaVale McGee on Saturday before falling to the court holding his head. In one harrowing angle from the telecast, Griffin’s outstretched hand can be seen shaking uncontrollably as he lies on the floor. After several minutes, Blake was able to be helped off of the court by medical staff. Rivers told reporter after the game that Blake was struggling to communicate at halftime, and the team has already confirmed that he suffered a concussion and he has been ruled out against the Hawks. Concussions are perhaps the trickiest injury in sports, and in serious cases recoveries can drag on for weeks. Obviously, after a very scary incident, the most important thing is that Blake can make a full recovery at his own pace.
Of course, those three injuries from last week aren’t the only ways the Clippers’ lineup has been impacted. The team’s two biggest off-season acquisitions, Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari, have hardly played this season. Beverley appeared just 11 times in a Clippers uniform before having season-ending knee surgery, and Gallinari has similarly only played 11 games as he’s dealt with an unprecedented series of glute injuries that will hold him out for at least a couple more weeks.
And if the injuries weren’t enough, the Clippers will also be moving forward without Jamil Wilson, who played quite well as a fill-in starter for Blake Griffin during Griffin’s last absence. With Griffin healthy and Wilson out of the rotation (and nearing the 45-day cut-off in his two-way contract), and three of the Clippers’ top four guards sidelined, the team was forced to cut Jamil in order to open up a roster spot to sign guard Tyrone Wallace.
So the Clippers are dealing with this: four members of the opening night starting lineup sidelined, along with the team’s best fill-in starting guard (since Doc Rivers has opted to keep Lou Williams as the second unit’s leader through most of the season). All in all, five of their best seven players are sidelined—as Doc Rivers vented on Saturday, “we have about 90 points of offense sitting in street clothes.”
What are they left with? Eleven players: an All-NBA center, an extraordinary sixth man guard, two backup-caliber combo forwards, two solid backup centers, a pair of second-round rookie guards, a pair of two-way contract G-Leaguers, and Brice Johnson—a player who the organization has such little faith in that they declined the third-year option on his rookie contract and kept him in the G-League even when Blake Griffin, the starter at his position, was injured.
So, basically, the Clippers’ best hope is a supernova offensive explosion from Lou Williams—who has been phenomenal this season, averaging 22 points and 5 assists per game while shooting 45% from the field and 41% from deep—and a strong inside performance from DeAndre Jordan (a replication of his 26-point, 17-rebound line from last week would be welcome), surrounded by enough random offensive production and defensive competence from the rest of the squad to come out on top.
Fortunately for the Clippers, if there was ever a four-game stretch where they could survive under such circumstances, it’s this one. On Wednesday, they’ll play the defending champion Golden State Warriors, which is a likely loss at full strength (making the cost of the injuries low), and they’ll close the week with two games against the Sacramento Kings. Those are two games that the Clippers should have a shot in, even shorthanded, and hopefully Teodosic and Griffin can return later this week for those games.
Tonight, though, they have the unique experience of playing what is probably the easiest game on their schedule: at home, against the worst team in the league, with that team playing on the second night of a back-to-back. To be fair, the Atlanta Hawks did play the Lakers last night—meaning they didn’t need to travel to L.A. for the second game of their back-to-back—but it’s a back-to-back nonetheless.
The Hawks have had a truly miserable season after losing Paul Millsap to the Denver Nuggets in free agency last summer: they’re last in the league at 10-29, and they’re 0-3 so far on this West Coast trip, pushing their overall road record to a dismal 3-18. They’re led by Dennis Schroder at the point guard position, and Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince are both nice pieces on the wing. But the interior play is non-existent, leaving the Hawks with a below-average offense and one of the worst defenses in the league.
One thing that Atlanta does do well is shoot the ball from deep. As a team, they shoot 38% from deep, good for 6th in the NBA (although they only only attempt threes at an average rate). Bazemore and Prince are both good shooters, and they start Ersan Ilyasova, an excellent shooter, at power forward. Their bench also features sharpshooters Marco Belinelli and Luke Babbitt (though Babbitt doesn’t play a ton because of the other holes in his game) as well as a handful of other capable three-point shooters.
Overall, though, there’s no sugarcoating it: the 2017-18 Atlanta Hawks are bad. They don’t have the talent on the roster to win games, and they lack the collection of inconsistent but interesting young prospects that teams like the Kings possess. It’s largely a transitional year for Atlanta that will hopefully lead to the addition of a young star in next summer’s draft, who they will then begin to build around long-term.
For the barely-Clippers who will take the floor tomorrow night, Atlanta’s weakness presents a high potential for downside—but also a unique opportunity. On one hand, the Clippers risk losing what should have been the easiest game on their schedule. The cost of an injury loss to the Hawks is much higher than an injury loss to the Warriors, because one takes away a 90% chance at a win while the other takes away a 10% chance at one. However, it also gives the Clippers an opportunity to actually win: there’s no reason why their roster, bare-boned as it is, shouldn’t be able to at least be competitive against a relatively non-competitive Hawks squad. Despite their injuries, they have a chance to win that wouldn’t be present against even the middling teams of the league.
Now a full two games out of the playoff picture, what’s left of the Clippers will need to take that chance, and continue doing what they’ve done all season: fight one game at a time, stay alive, and wait for reinforcements.