After the Clippers’ blowout 131-104 loss to the Warriors on Sunday night, Doc Rivers stated that he was fine with the Clippers energy that night. They’d tried hard, given it their all, but just couldn’t make shots against a constrictive Warriors’ defense. Instead, Doc lamented the Lakers’ loss two nights before, which he said was the only game where the effort was truly lacking. In an ironic twist, for a team that played hard and had so few effort issues all season, the Clippers laid an egg in a must-win game. Now, four days later, that Lakers’ loss looks extremely significant, and could be devastating.
The Clippers now sit in the 8th seed, with a matchup against the Warriors in the 1st round of the playoffs looming. There are still several scenarios where they place out of 8th, and there’s a decent likelihood at least one of those happens. However, they lost control of their own destiny when they dropped that Lakers game. Now, they are reliant on other teams doing things: the Rockets beating the Thunder, the Nuggets beating the Jazz, the Spurs losing to the Mavericks. It’s never good to be dependent on other teams losing, but that’s what the Clippers have done. And it all comes back to that Lakers loss.
Facing the Warriors in the 1st round was always the worst-case scenario, but after attending the game on Sunday, it’s hard to underestimate how big a mismatch that would be. Yes, the Clippers were missing their best player in Danilo Gallinari, their soul in Pat Beverley, and a key rotation player in JaMychal Green. But the Warriors are one of the most talented teams of all time, have homecourt advantage (in the last ever playoff run at Oracle), and would also weaken the Clippers’ advantage at Staples Center with the proliferation of Warriors’ fans in LA. The Warriors are just too good, and they have always gotten up to play the Clippers. A Warriors-Clippers series would likely be a sweep, and honestly, if the Clippers could just get a couple competitive games at home it would be a not-bad outcome. Any victory would be incredible.
The Clippers would be huge underdogs in a series against the Rockets, and fairly large ones against the Nuggets, but neither of those teams are the Warriors. The Rockets can run hot and cold with their three-point shooting and don’t have the top-to-bottom talent that the Warriors do. The Clippers could legitimately take a game from them, and at least hang around in a couple others. The Nuggets are in a different tier entirely – there’s at least an outside chance that the Clippers could win the series outright (though I certainly wouldn’t bet on it). The Nuggets are a bad matchup due to Paul Millsap being a perfect counter to Gallinari, and the dominance of Nikola Jokic, but the talent gap is far less severe. The Clippers could come out of either of those series with their heads held high. The same is true of the Warriors – but far less likely.
The Clippers were not expected to make the playoffs this season. Most pundits didn’t even predict them to win 40 games. So, on a macro level, a 47/48 win season and a playoff appearance is exceeding expectations by a massive margin. Everything else is gravy. On the other hand, they were so close to an even better story (especially if they play the Nuggets). Who knows if players (read: Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, etc.) would really care if the last they saw of the 2018-2019 Clippers was a slaughter at the hands of the Warriors. But there’s at least the possibility that it could harm their chances in free agency. Would a star free agent really want to go to an 8th seed that just got walloped in the first round of the playoffs? Maybe. Maybe not.
The Clippers could still get a favorable postseason outcome, either with things falling in place over the next two days for them to avoid the Warriors, or with a better-than-expected showing against the defending NBA champs. But their chances at making noise in the postseason were damaged by that Lakers’ loss, a loss to a team missing its five best players and playing for nothing. If that loss leads to a beatdown at the hands of the Warriors, it would end a magical season on a sour note.