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Good, Bad, and Ugly: Clippers Clinging to the 8th Seed

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The Clippers are percentage points ahead of the Nuggets and Jazz for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. Here’s a look at some developments that have taken place over the past couple weeks.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Good:

Sindarius Thornwell:

After being in and out of the rotation in January, and receiving almost no playing time at all in February, Sindarius has roared back to life over the past six games. Injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Avery Bradley pushed CJ Williams and Tyrone Wallace to primary positions in the Clippers’ rotation, but with both their two-way contracts up, Sindarius was the next man up. He has performed with flying colors, demonstrating the tenacity and defensive aptitude that made him a key player for the Clippers early in the season. However, he’s also simplified his game on offense. If he doesn’t have an advantage he gets rid of the ball quickly. If he’s open, he shoots. And if Sindarius sees a player he can beat, he attacks the basket, usually with speedy line-drives. His improved decision-making has led to stellar shooting (54% from the field, 3 for 5 from three) and a drastic reduction in turnovers compared to his bad stretch a few months ago. The lack of errors and impressive defense has translated to Sin making a positive impact in his time on the court. As long as he plays smart, he should receive minutes from Doc Rivers the rest of the season.

Jawun Evans Returns:

Jawun lost 18 games due to a groin injury, and his on-ball pressure on opposing point guards was missed many times over that period. He finally returned against the Cavaliers, and immediately started pressing Jose Calderon full court. Evans has mostly played alongside two other guards (Milos Teodosic and Lou Williams) since his return, not allowing him to do much in the way of ball-handling. Instead, Jawun has been relegated to spot-up shooting duties, certainly not the best use of his talents. However, he’s still made an impact with his defense and overall energy, and he will certainly come in handy against quick point guards the rest of the season. The best news is that he looks healthy—he’s moving well, chasing down loose balls, and working his way around screens just as he was to start the season. Milos Teodosic and Lou Williams have looked fatigued at various points over the past few weeks, and Evans’ return should help provide increased rest for the Clips’ veterans.

Bad:

Western Conference Playoff Race:

The Clippers have played well over the last month. Tobias Harris has been a revelation at both ends of the court. DeAndre Jordan has improved his play compared to the confusing days before the trade deadline. Tyrone Wallace had his month of glory in the sun before returning to the G-League. Boban Marjanovic won the Clippers a key game almost single-handedly! Despite all these positive developments, the Clippers barely have a playoff spot—they are currently the 8th seed, tied with the Nuggets and Jazz. The reason they haven’t made further progress is because the rest of the Western Conference playoff teams (outside of the Spurs) have seemingly decided that losing consecutive games is a death sentence. Every time the Nuggets or Thunder stumble and lose a bad game, they come right back and win several in a row. It feels like the Blazers and Jazz might not lose another game at all. Despite losing DeMarcus Cousins and Jimmy Butler respectively, the Pelicans and Timberwolves have hung in, grounded by magnificent performances by Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns. So really, the only team that the Clippers have made real progress on catching is the staggering Spurs, who have lost their aura of machinery and inevitability as of late. If the Clippers are going to make the playoffs, they can’t rely on any of these teams to fall apart. They need to win their spot on their own merits.

Lou Williams Needs Rest:

Lou Williams is averaging 32.7 minutes per game this season, and he’s only missed two contests. His previous high in minutes per game was just 29.9, and it was all the way back in 2009-2010, when Lou was a young 23 year old. That minutes per game count is even higher when you discount the first dozen or so games of the season, when the Clippers had some semblance of a healthy roster. The heavy load is clearly carrying a toll on Lou, who has not been as sharp in February and March as he was from November to January. He’s shooting 28.1% from 3 in the last two months, compared to 40.4% in November, 42.7% in December, and 36% in January. He wasn’t going to shoot over 40% all season, but his drastic decline is a sure sign of tired legs. Even his usually reliable free-throw shooting has dipped in March (22 of 33, a paltry 67%).

When Lou plays on no rest this season (i.e. on the second night of a back to back), he’s shooting 36% from deep. On one day of rest Lou is shooting 37.8%, and with two days he’s at 41%. All this suggests that Lou’s minutes need to be managed carefully down the stretch. Doc Rivers can’t afford to sit him too long, but if he keeps playing this much, his effectiveness will probably continue to dip. Lou has carried this team on his back for much of the season, and he needs as much rest as possible.

Ugly:

The Defense:

The Clippers haven’t held a team to under 100 points since February 9th against the Pistons. In those 12 games, they have given up over 110 points a staggering seven times. They are defending just enough at key points of games to pull out victories, but that strategy doesn’t seem like a formula to winning enough games to make the playoffs. At some point, the Clippers are going to have to play real, consistent defense (especially guarding the three-point line, which they have struggled with badly) for most of a game in order to pull out wins against competitive teams. Their schedule tightens up after their next game against the Bulls tomorrow, and the losses could really start to mount if their defense doesn’t improve. The thing is, the Clippers have the personnel to play at least solid defense. They just need to give superior effort on that end, and to execute their schemes better. If they can keep their defense at a non-leaky level, their fantastic offense should be good enough to win them plenty of games. Let’s see if their effort improves as the competition stiffens: this Clippers’ team doesn’t play to the level of competition as much as the Lob City era did, but that could still be a factor in recent games.