The old adage of beating the best in order to be the best is cliched. Still, is there any other statement more accurate to describe the Los Angeles Clippers right now?
The Clippers have been playing as well as they have all season, but a majority of the talking heads have yet to mention them as Western Conference contenders. That declaration has been reserved for the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs—and rightfully so.
Make no mistake, the Clippers have played extremely well this season and absolutely look the part of not just a conference contender, but a title contender.
While I understand the hesitation of some to sing the praises of a team that was swept by the Spurs two years ago and lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies last season, the Clippers look good.
Doc Rivers and Chris Paul have changed the culture of a once-maligned franchise. Furthermore, the development of Blake Griffin has catapulted the Clippers into the title conversation—something that those in the media have been waiting for over the past few seasons.
However, after all of the above, could the talking heads change course over the next few weeks and begin to pick the Clippers to win the West? What would need to happen for this to be the case?
Truthfully, only two things stand out.
The Return of J.J. Redick
Redick has been out for over a month now with a bulging disc in his lower back. Any kind of back issue can be extremely problematic if not allowed to heal properly.
While the disc will be a concern for the remainder of the year, Redick is trying overcome the painful injury and lace them back up.
According to ESPNLosAngeles.com's Arash Markazi, the issue now is nerve irritation in his right leg:
It's mostly a nerve issue, Redick said. When the nerve is responding, I feel good. When the nerve's not responding, then my right leg has some issues. That's why it's a day-to-day thing. There's not really a whole lot you can do for nerves, except for operate and I don't want to go that route.
The hope is that Redick can come back and play himself into game shape prior to the playoffs. That would be a major addition for the Clippers, even though they have not missed a beat offensively without Redick.
However, his ability to run off screens and hit shots from the perimeter would make the Clippers offense lethal and even more dynamic.
A healthy Redick would absolutely spark some more interest in the Clippers.
He would also alleviate some concerns that the Clippers will have a hard time scoring in the half court again during the playoffs. Those who have watched Griffin’s emergence are less afraid of that possibility this season, but the threat remains as long as the Grizzlies are a potential playoff matchup.
Clinch the No. 2 Seed
Perhaps the only thing that the Clippers could do to change public perception would be to clinch the No. 2 seed in the conference.
The Clippers sit within striking distance of the No. 2-seeded Thunder and play them during the last week of the season. Should the Clippers win that game, they would hold the tiebreaker over the Thunder and make up a full game on the reigning conference champions.
This sounds easier said than done, even with Russell Westbrook dinged up.
The shining light for the Clippers, in this scenario, is the fact that the Thunder have to travel to play the Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns, Indiana Pacers and Spurs in April, along with a date with the Clippers at the Staples Center.
April could make or break the Thunder and slide them down a seed.
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Conversely, the Clippers play five of their seven games in April at home. With that said, the Clippers will travel to Portland to take on the Trail Blazers in a season finale that will likely have seeding scenarios in play for both teams.
Considering the way the Clippers have been playing over the past month, barring injury, the Clippers are likely to make up a game in the standings and then have a head-to-head with the Thunder.
The schedule clearly favors the Clippers.
Keep an eye on Redick’s health and how the Thunder fare down the stretch. The playoffs are nearing and every game has significance—especially for teams out West.
The Clippers are rolling right now, but adding a healthy Redick and landing the No. 2 seed out West would do wonders not only for the team’s confidence, but the media’s confidence in the Clippers coming out of the West.