Eric Bledsoe could be the X-factor this postseason.
Falling out of the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, the Los Angeles Clippers will need to discover all of their hidden advantages if they would like to knock off either the Denver Nuggets or the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round.
After hanging with the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder for much of the season, the Clips have dropped off and could have the misfortune of opening the postseason on the road for the second consecutive season.
Luckily for Chris Paul and Co., the Clippers have some hidden advantages in their budding young talent of Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan, as well as the mental edge they developed last year after beating Memphis in the first round.
When Bledsoe and Jordan are performing well, the Clippers are elevated to another defensive level. With Bledsoe wreaking havoc on the perimeter and DJ patrolling the paint, Lob City is a tough opponent to score on. It is no coincidence that four of the five staunchest Clipper defense units feature either Bledsoe or Jordan.
When Jordan is confident and has his head in the game, he can turn into quite a force on offense as well.
Jordan is at his best when he gets involved early. Fittingly, DJ already had a double-double of 10 points and 11 boards against Phoenix by halftime.
As well as Jordan and Bledsoe performed against the Suns, the success of these two young guns is not limited to competition against the league’s bottom feeders.
Bledsoe has averaged 13.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG and 4.0 APG in two games against Memphis this season. A fearless stopper, Bledsoe held Mike Conley to just five points and one assist the last time he suited up against the Grizzlies.
What is the Clippers' biggest hidden advantage?
Although Jordan’s offensive numbers dip a bit against the defensive-minded Grizz, DJ’s work on Zach Randolph is superb.
With Jordan on the floor Randolph’s points per 36 minutes plummet to just 9.2, down 12.4 from his points per 36 minutes with DJ on the bench. Jordan also has sound activity around the basket, limiting the savvy Z-Bo to just 10.0 boards per 36 minutes, eight less than his average with Jordan sidelined.
The benefits that come with Jordan and Bledsoe will be crucial, presuming the Clippers and the Grizzlies face off again this postseason.
As well as Memphis has played in the second half of the season, the Clippers have had their number over the past two years.
Lob City not only took the season series against the Grizzlies 2-1 in 2011-12, but also knocked off Memphis in the first round of last year’s postseason.
Considered dark horses in the Western Conference, Memphis was unable to handle the potency of the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin duo. With a little help from Nick Young’s corner threes and big games from Reggie Evans, Los Angeles knocked off Memphis, bookended by tremendous road victories.
This year, the Clips lead the season series 2-1, with an impressive road win at Memphis without CP3. The only win by Memphis this year was with Bledsoe out with an injury.
Unsurprisingly, Conley eviscerated Lob City to the tune of 21 points and 11 assists without Bledsoe in the lineup.
Even if the Clippers end up facing Memphis in the first round, they have to feel good about their chances. Home court will be valuable, however.
Expecting a team to win back-to-back series on the road is a tough task.
Despite the Clips' maligned past, the mental fortitude that they gleaned during last year’s postseason gives them an edge over any of their potential first-round opponents.
Other than the Grizzlies, the Nuggets have not made it out of the first round since 2009. If the Clips are fortunate enough to get back up to the No. 3 seed, they will likely play division rival Golden State Warriors, a team with zero combined games of playoff experience from its starters.
Although the Clips have been in a slump since about the midpoint of the season, there is no reason that all hope should be lost in Lob City. The pressure will be on Coach Del Negro to draw up effective schemes and play the best rotations.
Giving Jordan and Bledsoe more minutes might be a good way to start.
Nevertheless, the Grizzlies and the Nuggets will both be vying for that No. 3 seed as well. No team wants a first-round matchup with a potent Clippers squad firing on all cylinders.