Are the Clippers’ playoff hopes alive again?
After losing four games in a row earlier in March, and then dropping a winnable game in Indiana, it certainly seemed as though the Clippers’ season was done.
Now, after a three-game winning streak and some help from teams above them in the standings, it certainly seems as though a playoff berth could be in LAC’s future. The Clippers have 7 games left, and while just 2 are against likely lottery teams (one of which is against the Nuggets, who are a fringe playoff team), five of those seven are at home and they have head-to-head opportunities against San Antonio, Utah, and New Orleans—three playoff teams within striking distance.
In order to contend for a playoff spot, the Clippers likely need to go at least 5-2 in their final 7 games, which will be a tough task. Winning tonight in Portland—which is likely their toughest game remaining—would be a huge step in the right direction. But even a loss isn’t fatal if they can win the right head-to-head match-ups on their April slate.
The Blazers are in a much less dire position. After being a part of the dense 3-10 cluster in the Western Conference after the All-Star break, Portland reeled off a 13-game winning streak to put them safely into third place and leave the rest of the pack in the dust. The Blazers now have a 3-game lead over 4th place in the loss column and would need to totally collapse down the stretch to lose control of the 3rd seed in the Western Conference. They’ve been truly impressive in recent weeks to separate themselves from a brutally competitive race.
Now, though, they might be just safe enough to take their feet off of the gas and coast into the postseason. Maurice Harkless will be out until the playoffs, and Damian Lillard missed their last game for the birth of his son. Portland has no chance of passing Houston or Golden State to improve their playoff seed, and as I said above, it’s incredibly unlikely that they cede control of 3rd. All they need to do is pick up a few more wins, stay as healthy as possible, and get ready to host a first-round series.
That leaves the door open for the Clippers, playing as high-stakes a game as possible, to bring the intensity. Their normal balanced offensive attack—sharing scoring duties between Austin Rivers, Lou Williams, Tobias Harris, DeAndre Jordan, and Montrezl Harrell—will be accented by the return of Danilo Gallinari, who averaged 20 points per game on 49% from the field and 42.5% from the field in February before suffering his broken hand. Austin Rivers and Tyrone Wallace will be tasked with the difficult assignment of defending Portland’s star guards, Lillard and C.J. McCollum. If they can slow down those two, they’ll stymie Portland’s attack and likely come away with a victory. Short of that, it’ll be up to the returning Gallinari to help the Clippers outscore their hosts.