Despite the torrid 2014 that the Los Angeles Clippers have enjoyed, Clipper Nation cannot be overly confident about their team’s playoff ceiling in the wild, wild West.
This is clearly the best Lob City has looked since Chris Paul made his way to Los Angeles in 2012. However, the Western Conference is so stacked that no team outside of maybe the San Antonio Spurs should feel comfortable with their first round matchup.
The West is an absolute dogfight, with the scrappy Phoenix Suns fighting with the Dallas Mavericks and the Memphis Grizzlies for the final two spots. Moving up the playoff ladder does not offer much more clarity, as the sharpshooting Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors can space out opponents and turn any matchup into a shootout.
There is a bit less parity at the top of the conference, where the Spurs continue to look like the class of the West. The Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder should have a compelling fight for the No. 2 seed, and the Houston Rockets appear to be a step behind the conference’s Big Three.
For all of the Spurs’ brilliance over their 19-game winning streak, the Clips have been there step-for-step. Over their last 17 games, Lob City is an incredible 15-2. They were a fluke CP3 game in New Orleans away from an 16-1 mark.
Since January 1, the Clippers own the league’s second-best record at 33-10, just a game behind the streaking Spurs.
So why are there reservations about the team come playoff time? Where does the uncertainty compromise playoff confidence? Can Los Angeles supplant the Spurs or Thunder from their throne of conference dominance?
Let’s look at a couple of the reasons why the West is still anybody’s game. Like last season, matchups can good go along way in predicting who comes out of the West.
Shades of Last Season
Although this iteration of Lob City is completely different from years past, there is no escaping the Clips’ postseason disappointment last year. Until the Clippers can exorcise last year’s first-round demons, the playoff hangover will continue to sit poorly with Clipper Nation.
Quick refresher: Los Angeles rolled to its best season in franchise history, posting a 56-26 record, claiming its first ever Pacific Division championship and earning home-court advantage in the first round against their rival Grizzlies.
Beyond an undefeated December and All-Star MVP honors for the Point God, Los Angeles came together late in the season to upend Memphis’ home-court aspirations. Late in the season, the Clippers stole a game at FedEx Forum to earn a 3-1 advantage over Memphis in their head-to-head series and ensure home-court advantage in the event of a tie.
After taking a 2-0 series lead, the Clippers folded, dropping four consecutive games to Memphis. Their season ended with some bizarre rotations and a romp in the Grindhouse.
The Clippers’ collapse against the Grizzlies is a cautionary tale of the hubris that comes with regular-season accolades. The success of the greatest season in franchise history was all for naught, after Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph tore up an unimposing and more talented Clippers’ squad.
Frankly, the teams vying for playoff position in the Western Conference are so talented that home-court advantage might be something of an afterthought.
If the playoffs started this week, the Clippers would open up at home against the Warriors.
In what has been a bitter regular-season rivalry, Lob City split its four games with the Dubs this year, with each team winning on its home court. Last season, the Clippers were not so fortunate, as they dropped three of four to Golden State.
In fact, Lob City has not won at Oracle Arena since CP3’s first game in LA. Keep in mind, that was the first game of the season on Christmas Day 2012, against an unimposing lottery-bound Dubs team.
After witnessing what Steph Curry and Klay Thompson did in their upset of the Denver Nuggets last season—and almost did to the Spurs in the second round—Mark Jackson’s ball club might be the most dangerous bottom seed in the conference.
The Warriors not only have the shooters in Curry and Thompson, but they possess tremendous length on the wing in Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala. If versatility at the forward spot was not enough, the Warriors big men Andrew Bogut and David Lee are capable of spacing Lob City out and taking their bigs away from the basket.
Lob City is certainly a better and more complete team than the Warriors, but Curry’s pyrotechnics should not leave any defense comfortable.
What does it all mean?
Lob City is a clear contender to make it to the Western Conference Finals.
Despite potential matchup problems with the likes of the Grizzlies and the Dubs, Los Angeles looks poised for a deep playoff run. Yet to win a second-round game in CP3’s tenure, Los Angeles should be in a close series with the Thunder, should the two teams meet up in the Western Conference semifinals.
The Clippers have become rather Spursian in their ability to take care of business night in and night out. Whether it is Paul, Blake Griffin, J.J. Redick, Danny Granger, Darren Collison or Jamal Crawford missing time, Lob City is yet to miss a beat on the court.
Much of this can be attributed to the culture Doc Rivers brought along with his championship pedigree from Boston. Among the tenets of his West Coast Ubuntu is a fundamental trust in team.
As Kate Fagan of ESPN The Magazine analyzed (via ESPN.com):
Most fans assume that if the Clips are going to avoid bowing out in the first round of the playoffs again and make a deep run, they'll need Paul and power forward Blake Griffin to be superhero versions of themselves: more dimes, more dunks, more dominance. But what they'll really need, Rivers believes, is more trust. And the coach is steadily building it, hoping his players will see his constant tiny adjustments not as an irritation but as a path to an NBA title.
In a season of unpredictability in the NBA, Rivers’ presence has sparked the Clippers’ improvement.
The Clippers are peaking at the right time, having gone 7-2 on the road since February 26. They have not lost at Staples Center since a February 18 contest against the Spurs.
Led by a healthy Paul and Griffin, with Rivers at the helm, Lob City should still reach new heights this postseason.
Statistics accurate as of April 3, 2014. Statistics used from NBA.com/Stats and ESPN.com.