What can we expect from Blake Griffin and co. after the All-Star break?
Heading into the final part of the regular season, there are numerous questions surrounding the Los Angeles Clippers.
Where will they finish in the conference? Are they deep enough to make a serious run?
Holding on to the lead in the Pacific Division, the Clips will be looking to rely on the brilliance of their two All-Stars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, to supplant the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder out west. Finally healthy, the Clips will look to regain their early-season offensive form and complement it with their staunch team defense.
Seeding in the ultra-competitive Western Conference is anybody’s guess, as spots No. 2 through No. 6 are up in the air. As of the All-Star break, the Clippers were jockeying for position for the No. 3 seed against the Spurs, the Portland Trail Blazers and the Houston Rockets.
So how can we expect the Clips to shape up as we approach the final two months of the season?
Let’s make and evaluate five post-All-Star break predictions for Lob City.
All statistics accurate as of February 18, 2014. Statistics used from ESPN.com and NBA.com/Stats.
The Clippers got a big win over the Blazers just before the All-Star break.
Heading into the All-Star break, the Clips were a pedestrian 5-3 against the West’s other top four teams.
The Clippers split games against the Thunder, the Spurs and the Blazers, with no team winning on the other’s home court. Although the Clips have knocked off the Rockets in both contests, including once at the Toyota Center, the teams have not squared off since early November.
Even though Lob City only has one more contest against both Portland and San Antonio, each game will be key.
Fortunately, Los Angeles has the benefit of squaring off against Tim Duncan and co. at home in the first game after the All-Star break. Still, a rested Spurs squad could prove troublesome.
Last season, the Clippers played the Spurs in their first game after the All-Star break and were soundly routed at home 116-90.
Portland is a different story, as a total of just nine points has separated the two teams. The Clips were a Nicolas Batum three-pointer away from stealing a game in Rip City before Los Angeles folded in double overtime.
Los Angeles and Portland square off in the last game of the season, and that game could be key in deciding home-court advantage.
Beyond Portland and San Antonio, Los Angeles has a pair of games against both the Thunder and the Rockets. While Kevin Durant looks invincible right now, the Clips need to split those games in order to establish themselves as worthy competitors to the Thunder.
A 4-2 record in the upcoming games against the Spurs, Blazers, Thunder and Rockets is certainly possible.
Could a double-digit winning streak be on the horizon?
Having won 17 straight games a season ago, the Clippers are yet to win more than five consecutive games this season. That might change quickly, as the Clippers hit a light part in their schedule.
Lob City has a chance of rattling off a double-digit winning streak soon after the break. Beginning Monday, February 24, the Clippers have 10 games that see them play the New Orleans Pelicans twice, the Rockets, the Phoenix Suns twice, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Atlanta Hawks, the Golden State Warriors, the Utah Jazz and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Returning from a three-game road trip, the Rockets could prove challenging at home. Additionally, the Suns seemed to confound the Clips during their last matchup, and an unconscious shooting effort from Steph Curry or Klay Thompson makes the Dubs nearly unbeatable.
The Clips know that a win against the Rockets would give them the season series. Revenge should be in Lob City’s eyes after earlier embarrassments against Phoenix and Golden State.
More importantly, only four of those games come on the road, with one of them being on the Lakers’ home court. At 23-4, the Clips have the second-best home record in the conference.
Some home cooking during the NBA’s dog days could see Los Angeles rattle off a big winning streak.
Does Doc Rivers has interest in signing Jason Collins?
Heading into the regular season, there were myriad concerns about the Clippers’ depth at the frontcourt.
Although superb play by both Griffin and DeAndre Jordan has been inspiring, the Clips could still use a veteran big man on the bench come playoff time. Earlier in the season, Bob Finnan of the News-Herald tweeted that the Clips had interest in Andrew Bynum.
With Bynum signed by the Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles is still relying on the mediocre Byron Mullens and Ryan Hollins, with spells by Antawn Jamison.
Might the Clippers look to sign a big-man free agent like Jason Collins? Perhaps they will pull the trigger and make a deal for a serviceable veteran big man a la Elton Brand or Brandon Bass?
It will be compelling to see what the Clippers do at the trade deadline.
Lob City should have Redick back on the court soon.
At the All-Star break, the Clippers had the seventh-stingiest defense in the league, logging a defensive rating of 102.0.
Peaking in December, the Clips had the third-best defense in the league during the final calendar month. With CP3 out of the lineup for most of January, the first month of the year saw the Clips’ defensive rating plummet to 15th, sandwiched between the lowly Philadelphia 76ers and the inconsistent Denver Nuggets.
With Paul back in the lineup and J.J. Redick nearing a return, the Clippers’ backcourt will relegate average defenders Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford back to the bench. Los Angeles will be able to utilize its quick-handed point guard and cerebral shooting guard to tame explosive gunners out west.
The elite play of DeAndre Jordan has been inspiring, but even his defense could be stronger.
Injuries to Paul and Griffin, and even Matt Barnes, have compromised some of Jordan’s familiarity with his teammates in Doc Rivers’ new system.
As ClipperBlog’s Andrew Han noted:
“But it’s his [Jordan’s] first year in a defensive system, asked to contribute to a level never confided upon him before. And while he hones his instincts and cleans up the numerous errors that occur on a given possession, Jordan relies on his help defenders to clean his own mistakes. It’s no surprise that the best defensive lineups feature strong team defenders in conjunction with Jordan; it is a defense of symbiosis rather than reliance on the individual.”
Repetitions with a healthy starting five will be key for Jordan. Should he coalesce with Griffin on the back line, the Clippers could very soon find themselves in the top five in defensive rating.
The Clippers and the Rockets have been neck-and-neck all season.
Percentage points behind both the Rockets and the Trail Blazers, the Clips should surge through the rest of the season, jumping Portland and Houston in the process.
Like the Clippers, the Rockets only have six games against the West’s other top four teams. Houston has been effective, winning two of three against the Blazers and winning all three contests against the Spurs.
Still, they have managed to just stay afloat with the Clips despite long injury time to both Paul and Redick. Lob City should expect a winning percentage higher than its current .673 over the final 27 games of the season.
It will be interesting to see if the Rockets can keep pace.
Unlike Houston, the Blazers have struggled as of late and cooled off significantly relative to their hot start. Leading the Western Conference for much of the season, Portland is just 4-6 in its last 10 contests and has fallen five games back in the loss column behind the Northwest Division-leading Thunder.
Although the Blazers have finished their season series with their division rivals, their suspect defense should be serious cause for concern. Rip City has the eighth-worst defense in the league, with a defensive rating of 105.7.
Moreover, the Clippers are starting to come together at the right time, making the jump over Portland and Houston realistic.
Following Lob City’s big win over Portland heading into the break, Chris Paul told reporters:
"I'm happy," Paul said. "I'm in a great place as far as our team going into the break -- one of the best feelings I've had about a team since I've been in the league. Just strictly because of defense. I think a lot of people see that [Portland] scored 117 points tonight, and are like, 'What is he talking about?' but the mindset is there. It's a work in progress, and hopefully we peak at the right time. For me, we're in a good place right now."
Moving forward, the Clips will look to ride the momentum of their three-game win streak heading into the break. If everyone can stay healthy, then the Clips will be a potent team down the stretch.