When push has come to shove, in the last three games, the Clippers just haven’t had quite enough in the tank to get the job done.
In their defense, it’s been three pretty difficult games: on the road in Houston against the team with the NBA’s best record, on the road in Oklahoma City on the second night of a back-to-back with Westbrook, George, and Adams all healthy, and against a red-hot Portland Trail Blazers team whose win over the Clippers was their 13th in a row.
Still, they were outscored 344-318 over that span. Three losses by a combined 26 points, allowing an average of 116 points per game and only scoring 106 points per game of their own. Both of those are losing numbers.
It’s no secret why the Blazers are where they are in the standings at the moment. They have one of the most high-powered backcourts in the league, with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Those two guards put them in the Western Conference playoff conversation, along with a host of other teams, and various injuries to the competition (Spurs: Leonard; Thunder: Roberson; Jazz: Gobert; Pelicans: Cousins; Timberwolves: Butler; Nuggets: Millsap; Clippers: Beverley, Gallinari) put them in a position to claim the 3-seed. It certainly isn’t their fault that they’ve stayed healthy and other teams haven’t, and it’s heavily to their credit that they’ve been able to put together a dominant 13-game winning streak to ascend to their position. They haven’t piled wins on tanking teams, either: the current streak features two victories against the Warriors, this game against the Clippers, and impressive wins against the Wolves, Jazz, Thunder, and Cavaliers.
In this game against the Clippers, however, it wasn’t the Blazers’ guards who lifted them to victory. The two both had decent games, with Lillard scoring 23 points and McCollum adding 21. But against a Clippers squad that struggles defensively while routinely scoring 120 points of their own, 44 combined points for those two shouldn’t be enough. For Austin Rivers and Sindarius Thornwell, who had to mark Lillard and McCollum after spending last week dealing with Chris Paul, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Paul George, that indicates a successful defensive effort. Rivers had a solid 15 points of his own, and Lou Williams’ 30-point explosion off of the bench helped to make up for Thornwell’s lack of offensive production.
In a game where Williams and Rivers score more than Lillard and McCollum, you’d expect the Clippers to win. The primary weight of that expectation would weigh on Tobias Harris, who is averaging 20 points since being traded to the Clippers in late January, outplaying Al-Farouq Aminu (9 points per game) and Maurice Harkless (6 points per game) at the forward positions.
It didn’t work out that way on Sunday night. Aminu stifled Harris, allowing just 11 points on 5-14 shooting. On the other end, Aminu hit 4 of 7 threes en route to a 16-point, 8-rebound, 6-assist, 3-steal performance. That’s his fifth-highest scoring game of the season, and the most assists he’s had in a game by double his previous high mark of 3. Even more surprising was Harkless, who made three of four from deep and eight of eleven from the field en route to 21 points, his second-highest scoring game of the season.
If you told me that Williams and Rivers would outscore Lillard and McCollum, I’d tell you that the Clippers would probably win. If you told me that Aminu and Harkless would over triple Tobias Harris’ scoring output... I probably wouldn’t believe you. But, the Blazers found the holes in the Clippers defense, didn’t over-rely on their stars when other quality looks were available, and showed why they’ve risen to third in the Western Conference while the Clippers have fallen to 10th.
For the Clippers, the season is far from over (forget mathematical elimination, they still have a legitimate chance of making the playoffs), but the heat is as high as it’s been since their nine-game losing streak in November.
The Clippers, in 10th, are tied in the loss column with Denver with one head-to-head game remaining, and they’ve clinched the tiebreaker. They’re just one loss behind Minnesota with a major head-to-head game looming on Tuesday (the Wolves have already clinched the tiebreaker). They’re two games back in the loss column of the San Antonio/Utah/New Orleans Cluster, and they have a head-to-head contest remaining against every one of those teams—three games that, combined with the Clippers’ final game against the Nuggets, make up four of LAC’s last five games in what is sure to be a chaotic last-ditch playoff push in April.
The Clippers’ playoff dreams aren’t dead, but they’re at risk. A loss to Minnesota on Tuesday would be another nail in the coffin, but not the final one.