About a third of the way into the NBA season, things are going pretty good for the Clippers. With newcomers Kawhi Leonard and Paul George leading the way, L.A. has surged to a 20-8 record despite some serious injury troubles. Leonard has missed 8 games and George has missed 11, along with absences from key members of the supporting cast like Landry Shamet (17 games), Rodney McGruder (11 games), JaMychal Green (6 games), Lou Williams (2 games), Patrick Beverley (2 games).
Because they’ve been missing so many key players for various overlapping chunks of the young season, the world has yet to get a chance to really see what this Clippers team is capable of at full strength—although they came terrifyingly close by decisively defeating the Lakers on opening night with George sidelined. It’s pretty uncommon for us to get this far into the season without having a good grasp on what the consensus favorites for the NBA Championship look like, but that’s the situation that we’re in.
Thanks in part to better health, but also due to really strong early-season play, the Los Angeles Lakers currently sit in the top position in the Western Conference, with a record of 24-4. While they aren’t that far ahead of the Clippers, don’t expect LAC to make a strong push for the top seed this season—they’ll continue to take extreme caution, rest Kawhi on back-to-backs, and use their phenomenal depth to make it to the post-season with a high seed and a (hopefully) intact roster.
The Clippers’ real competition for seeding—and potential home-court advantage in the second round of the playoffs—will come from behind, as three teams are currently within 1.5 games of them in the standings, ready to move into second and claim second-round home-court if the Clippers stumble. Those teams are the Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, and Houston Rockets.
Tonight against the Suns, the Clippers will get Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams back from injuries. JaMychal Green’s return is imminent. And on Thursday, the Clippers will play host to Houston.
That means that not only will Thursday’s game be crucial in the standings, as the Clippers look into the future and see the potential of late-season standings jostling with the Rockets (the teams are currently tied 1-1 in the season series and this is the third of four match-ups this year), but it could be our first opportunity to actually see a full-strength Clippers team this season, with a chance to prove themselves against one of the league’s marquee squads, headlined by MVP-caliber talent like Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
The Clippers and the Rockets also seem to have had intertwined fates in recent years. Houston upended L.A. during the second round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs, in what was likely the most gut-wrenching defeat of the Lob City era. After taking a 3-1 lead, the Clippers stumbled to close the series, and when a massive third-quarter lead in game 6 made it seem likely that the team was headed to their first-ever Western Conference Finals appearance, an improbably Rockets comeback led by Corey Brewer and Josh Smith boosted Houston to victory. They would go on to win game 7 and the series.
It was only two years later that the Clippers would trade Chris Paul to the Rockets when the two sides decided that his tenure in L.A. should come to an end. While Paul is no longer in Houston either (coincidentally, he’s playing in Oklahoma City, where the Clippers recently traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari in order to acquire Paul George), the Clippers still have three crucial contributors who the Rockets gave up on: starting point guard Patrick Bevelrey, and the anchors of their bench unit, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell.
Thursday’s night game against the Rockets has everything: standings intrigue, a full-strength Clippers squad, star-studded action, a compelling budding rivalry, and potential revenge games for several key Clippers.
To grab tickets for this game while you still can, check out the offerings on Stubhub.
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