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The Clippers are the NBA Playoffs’ biggest unknown

Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

The scariest film of the 2010s is almost entirely terrifying due to the ambiguity of its central terrorizer. The Babadook, Jennifer Kent’s psychological horror film from 2014, tells the story of a single mother plagued by the shocking and brutal death of her husband all while navigating her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house. Soon, she and her family discover that a sinister presence is all around them, working its way into their lives like a stain embedding itself in a carpet. Just, you know, scarier than that.

But what is this thing, this “Babadook”? It sounds like a silly cartoon character, the sort of thing a kid shouts at their mother in an effort to communicate what they want to put on the television. But it’s far darker than that — like, far, far darker. While believed to be a spirit or demon, the Babadook is actually what we call a tulpa; it’s a form of a thought that can manifest itself in our plane of reality due to the strength of our fear and belief in its existence. It takes a specific form: a tall, pale-faced creature in a top hat with taloned fingers that torments its victims after they become conscious of its existence.

This thing — and I cannot stress this enough — is f**king terrifying. It’s the kind of thing that lingers in the background, relatively unassuming, but insistent in its presence, or more so, in the danger its presence insinuates. That’s the most haunting sort of being. The one that works its way into your mind when you can least bear it, and strikes when you least expect it.

I liken the Babadook to the 2021-22 Los Angeles Clippers, quietly the most terrifying opponent anyone may have to face in these NBA playoffs. They just don’t know it yet.

While Paul George rehabbed, he watched film. Games, specifically, both his team’s and those around the league. According to Tania Ganguli of the New York Times, who recently spoke with George about his return from injury, “He would pay close enough attention to offer suggestions or words of encouragement to his Los Angeles Clippers teammates via text message. After a while, though, he felt an acute sense of regret.”

“Early on they did a great job of kind of rallying and keeping together and having a strong season, but as the season went on, they kind of hit a wall and ran out of gas,” George told Ganguli. “It was very noticeable. It was tough. It was tough to watch that and not be able to help them. I think that was probably the hardest part for me — watching.”

The same probably goes for Kawhi Leonard, who has been sidelined since tearing his ACL in the second round of last postseason. Norman Powell, too, who was out for 22 games with a broken foot before returning to action just last week. It’s no fun to watch when all you want to do is assist in what could be a winning effort. Now that George and Powell are back — with Leonard potentially waiting in the wings, if you believe the reports — that effort resumes in full.

Before George went down with an elbow injury back in December, the Clippers were the West’s fifth-best squad and he was on the MVP shortlist. Yet despite so much time on the sidelines, he’s been more effective than he has in his entire career in a variety of areas. For the season, he’s logged a career-high in usage rate of 35.5 percent, which places him in the 100th percentile among forwards despite having just played in 31 games. He’s scored 24.3 points per game during the regular season, somehow the second-most he’s ever averaged in his career, proof that no matter the amount of time he’s missed, George has taken full advantage of the minutes he’s played.

Take his return on March 29 as a prime example of that: he dropped 34 points as the Clippers came back to beat the Utah Jazz, 121-115.

PG’s assist percentage — 28.8 percent — is also a career-high and a number that puts him in the league’s 99th percentile. That explains the career-best dime average of 5.7 per game, a whole half an assist more per contest than George has ever averaged before. He’s playing more like a point guard than he has in the past, showing flashes of court vision that no Clipper has emanated since Chris Paul.

(A weird nugget: The Clippers have won 11 of 17 games when George doles out five or more assists, and 7-1 when he has seven or more. I dunno. Seems cool.)

The funniest thing about George’s 2021-22 campaign is that, despite his offensive prowess in his limited time, his calling card has been his defense. The Clippers allow 6.6 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor — in that category, George is in the 93rd percentile among forwards. His 2.2 steals per game this season also tied a career-high, matching the average he maintained back in 2018-19 when he made it onto the All-NBA and All-Defensive first teams and finished third in MVP voting.

Powell, meanwhile, has been better than he’s ever been as a Clipper. The sample size is small — just five games and two starts, thanks to the aforementioned broken foot — but he’s gone off. His per-game scoring average of 21.4 points as a Clipper is a career-high, despite the fact that Powell is playing the fewest minutes (25) he has per game since the 2018-19 season.

His time in Los Angeles has been limited, but the best aspects of Powell’s skillset have been amplified thanks to his role. He’s shooting and defending, little more and little less. The Clippers score 133.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor — that ranks in the 100th percentile. Nothing about his play shows that he would ever be a liability in a series. He can be a matchup nightmare on either end of the floor, even as a sixth man. Perhaps especially as a sixth man.

Beyond their formerly-wounded doves, the Clippers that have been in action all season were the ones who kept the ship relatively steady without their key contributors. A 23-27 record without George isn’t a winning one, but it was enough to keep them squarely in the playoff race. Reggie Jackson led the team in scoring over that stretch, but six other Clippers averaged double-figures. Terance Mann has proven himself as a pesky defensive asset; Los Angeles allows two fewer points when he’s on the floor than when he’s off. He’s also an at-the-rim scoring threat, one who finishes 66 percent of his shots around the basket, which ranks in the 84th percentile among guards in the NBA.

The Clippers boast threats galore on both ends. Their case to make the NBA Finals — even to contend, for that matter — should have died when George went down and Leonard’s return became less and less likely. And yet, thanks to a band of role players with the perfect amount of a superstar complex within each of them, they’ve lingered, staying relevant just enough to never quite leave the spotlight entirely. Now, their sixth man and second star have returned, picking up where they left off and then some.

We’ve seen every single playoff team essentially at full strength at least a handful of times throughout this season, save the unvaccinated point guard here and there. But the Clippers return to their version of full-strength as an enigma, a daunting presence that will have to make it out of the play-in if they hope to make any noise beyond a sudden death matchup. Anyone they play will suddenly be facing a team they’ve essentially yet to encounter. In a way, they’ll be preparing to take on a tulpa (scroll back to paragraph no. 2 for a refresher).

Tulpas are scary. This Clippers team might be even scarier.