The Los Angeles Clippers have separated themselves as title contenders by winning 54 games and counting during the 2013-14 season. In order to reach their championship aspirations, however, players throughout the roster—namely Blake Griffin—need to be at full strength.
Despite clinching the Pacific Division crown with a comeback 112-108 win against the Phoenix Suns on April 2, head coach Doc Rivers and his players are keeping their focus on the Larry O’Brien Trophy, according to ESPN’s Arash Markazi.
“It’s always nice to win whatever you win, but it’s clearly not what we’re playing for so I don’t see why we should bring out the party hats,” Rivers said.
All-Star point guard Chris Paul reiterated his coach’s stance by saying, “It’s nice I guess, but it doesn’t really mean much. We won the division last year and lost in the first round.”
Veteran forward Matt Barnes added, “We don’t talk about let’s get this division banner. We talk about let’s get this championship banner,” while Griffin said, “We have much bigger goals.”
Oddly enough, the Clips have failed to win a postseason game past the first round since Paul’s arrival in 2011-12. They were swept out of the second round by the San Antonio Spurs two years ago and lost in the first round against the Memphis Grizzlies last year after winning the first two games of the series.
CP3 will try to make that narrative a thing of the past in 2014, but he can’t do it alone.
L.A. shouldn’t worry about fighting for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. If the Clips eventually get there, so be it, but the most important factor moving forward is health.
Getting Blake Healthy
The Clippers’ All-Star power forward was forced to leave the team's March 29 matchup against the Houston Rockets after six minutes of action due to back spasms. The injury kept him out of a March 31 affair versus the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he made a swift comeback by playing two days later against the Suns.
Despite averaging 24 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per game since his return, the 25-year-old big man is shooting a woeful 42.1 percent from the floor. As ESPN’s J.A. Adande noted via Twitter, it doesn’t appear as if Griffin is back at full strength.
That back has Blake Griffin moving real gingerly, even after he makes athletic plays like that rebound putback— J.A. Adande (@jadande) April 4, 2014
He’s been healthy enough to play, but the back issue is preventing him from performing at peak form. It may ultimately be in the team’s best long-term interest to rest Griffin for an inevitable playoff run.
"Rest is important going into the playoffs, obviously. You know, everybody being healthy. But at the same time we want to be playing our best basketball," Griffin said during his postgame interview after the loss to the Mavericks. He added that he trusts Doc to make the best decision in terms of monitoring playing time.
Clippers fans are already well aware of what can happen when Griffin isn’t at 100 percent in a postseason setting.
After suffering a high ankle sprain during a team practice, the former Oklahoma standout played just 20 minutes in Game 5 against Memphis during the 2013 playoffs. He finished with four points on 2-of-7 shooting to accompany five rebounds and five assists. L.A. went on to lose by 10 points in Staples Center.
Griffin’s minute total dipped even more in Game 6, as he notched just 14 minutes, racking up four fouls in the process. The Grizzlies clinched the series with a blowout 118-105 win.
As the floor general, Paul is the engine that makes the Clippers run so efficiently. When Griffin is hindered to such a dramatic degree, though, L.A. becomes predictably beatable.
Rivers needs to make sure his talented interior force won't be held back by a nagging injury.
Injured Role Players
Shooting guard J.J. Redick missed nearly two months of action due to a bulging disc in his back, but he made his return to the Clippers rotation on April 3 against the Dallas Mavericks.
The former Duke standout played 24 minutes in 113-107 loss. He finished with 12 points on 3-of-10 shooting.
“I didn’t feel limited,” Redick said during his postgame interview. “Felt limited by my rustiness, but physically didn’t feel any limitations.”
He certainly didn’t have his best game from a shooting standpoint, but it’s encouraging that Redick didn’t feel his body holding him back. When healthy, the 29-year-old is a valuable cog in Rivers' system because he can spread the floor with outside shooting. That has been a complementary skill beside the dribble penetration of Paul and the interior post-ups from Griffin.
“I think it’s probably more important to him,” Rivers said of Redick’s return, per Robert Morales of the Long Beach Press-Telegram. “I guess it’s important for me, too. I want to see what he can do. Is he 100 percent? How’s he moving? So I guess it’s important for everyone.”
Redick was a marquee piece of Rivers’ rotation prior to injury. He started all 30 of his games prior to the All-Star break, averaging 15.7 points on 45.9 percent shooting from the field and 39.6 percent from beyond the three-point arc, per NBA.com.
Getting him reacclimated to game action—and eventually the starting lineup—is important so long as he doesn’t suffer a setback.
Of course, the sharpshooting guard isn’t the only role player fighting through injury troubles.
Doc Rivers: Jamal Crawford & Danny Granger "out for a while," adds "I'd be surprised if we saw either of them before the playoffs" #Clippers— Madelyn Burke (@MadelynBurke) April 4, 2014
Both Jamal Crawford (calf) and Danny Granger (hamstring) could be shut down for the regular season in hopes of getting them back for the playoffs.
Crawford—who is in the running for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award—has missed the team’s past three games and has appeared in just six contests since the beginning of March. He's averaged 18.6 points, 3.2 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game for L.A. in 2013-14—primarily in a bench role. His ability to score points in bunches off the bench ensures the Clippers won't lose leads or fall behind often when they rest the starters.
Granger—who was acquired via free agency after getting bought out by the Philadelphia 76ers—has been absent for four straight. He's not the offensive threat he once was, but he reinvented himself to some degree with the Indiana Pacers as a respectable defensive talent. His availability as a solid bench option and overall glue guy is exactly why the Clips decided to add him.
Who will be the Clippers' playoff X-factor?
Objectively speaking, it’s not imperative for L.A. to fight for improved position in the Western Conference standings. With so many talented teams top to bottom, the Clippers will be in for a dogfight no matter where they finish.
Instead, Rivers needs to pump the brakes by evaluating injuries, limiting minutes and perhaps resting his stars altogether.
With the league’s second-most efficient offense (109.4 points per 100 possessions) and eighth-best defense (101.9 points allowed per 100 possessions), the Clippers undoubtedly have the talent needed to compete for a championship in 2014.
Some pundits may write them off in favor of the experienced Spurs or Kevin Durant’s Thunder, but L.A. shouldn’t be counted out—especially if it finds a way to get healthy after Game 82. As it stands, however, health remains a prominent question mark.