The next six games are crucial for the Clippers’ playoff hopes.
In the second half of March, the road gets tougher: 8 of 10 games on the road, with nine of those opponents being likely playoff teams. In April, five of their six games are against playoff opponents. Put those two groups together, and the last month of the season is a grueling stretch that also features eight head-to-head games against teams that LAC is directly competing against for playoff spots and positioning.
That’s what makes games like tonight’s so crucial. For the Clippers to fight for a playoff spot, they’ll need to win tons of difficult games—they need to take care of business against the weaker opponents on their schedule so as to not make their task in late March and April even more daunting.
The New York Knicks, at this stage in the season, are the definition of a “weaker opponent.” They’re 1-9 in their last 10 games, rising star Kristaps Porzingis is out for the season, and the team owns their own first-round draft pick. The main pieces that remain are the likes ofTim Hardaway, Jr., Enes Kanter, Michael Beasley—nobody that I particularly feel the need to bash, but not the collection of talent that makes up the core of a very successful NBA team.
For the Clippers, it means rebounding from a low-energy loss to the Houston Rockets and continuing to work through the issues that come with a depleted roster. Avery Bradley, Jawun Evans, and Danilo Gallinari all remain out (along with, of course, starting point guard Patrick Beverley), and the statuses of all three remain uncertain going forward. Bradley and Evans could both miss the remainder of the season, while Gallinari’s bruised hand hasn’t progressed in a very positive way:
At this point, it's not just a pain tolerance thing. Gallinari can't clench his fist, can't tie his shoes, can't grab anything. Gallo is set to have another examination tomorrow, an MRI, to determine the status of his hand injury. #Clippers— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) March 1, 2018
In addition to that quartet of injury absences, the Clippers are also adjusting to life without Tyrone Wallace, whose two-way contract was not converted to a rest-of-season deal with the team following his last allowed NBA day. The circumstances surrounding Wallace’s status are unclear, but it seems as though he may not play for the Clippers again this season. Tonight is also the last available game for two-way player C.J. Williams, who has been a major contributor this season. It remains to be seen if the Clippers, who have a roster space and room under the luxury tax to add a rest-of-season deal, will convert Williams after tonight’s game.
In the meantime, the Clippers need to do what they’ve done all season: tune out the noise, forget about the guys who are hurt, and find ways to win basketball games. The offensive ensemble of Lou Williams, Tobias Harris, Austin Rivers, DeAndre Jordan, Montrezl Harrell, and Milos Teodosic gives them a fighting chance in most matchups despite the team’s defensive struggles. Against a team like the Knicks, that core is enough to be favored by 9 points.