Let’s take a run up and down America’s best state (sorry, we are Cali guys) and check on all four teams.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (37-17)
The Clippers had all 14 players available for practice. Chris Paul? Back from his knee injury. Blake Griffin? Hamstring healed. Chauncey Billups? Grant Hill? Good to go. And so on, and so on.
“I was looking around our huddle (Thursday at practice) while coach was talking, and thinking “This is unreal!” How did they pull it off?” Crawford said, smiling as he prepared for the Heat. “How did they do this, as far as having everybody buy in, and the cap, and how everything works? It’s unbelievable.”
Extra depth and talent didn’t help much against the Heat. Paul was hit with early foul trouble, and had barely more assists (two) than techs (one). But Sunday, the still-healthy Clippers delivered a great performance by beating the Knicks in the Garden, then ran away from the Sixers in Philly a night later to finish their two-week, eight-city Grammy road trip at 4-4. Pretty good, considering the injury-riddled nature of the trip, contributing to losses in Toronto, Boston and Washington.
While the Clippers are undoubtedly contenders in the Western Conference, two major questions persist regarding their chances of making the franchise’s first NBA Finals, or even conference finals.
First, while their depth is a huge advantage in the regular season, come playoff time teams typically shorten rotations. The bench won’t be seeing and exploiting quite as many marginal players, and meanwhile, coach Vinny Del Negro may not use as many of his own guys, either.
Second, outside of Griffin, the Clippers lack any consistent interior scoring. DeAndre Jordan is a better post player now than at any point in his career, but is still pretty raw as a scorer, and a 43 percent mark from the line makes him hard to play late in games. He is backed up by Ryan Hollins, serviceable enough and delivering decent minutes when called upon, but hardly prolific. Lamar Odom brings championship experience from his Lakers days, but at a scant 3.8 points a night hasn’t exactly rediscovered his scoring touch after last season’s disaster in Dallas.
It’s reasonable to ask whether they will be able to score enough in the playoffs, when the fast breaks fueling Lob City disappear and games slow down.
For what it’s worth, the Clippers have counters to those arguments.
Hill says even if fewer guys play night to night, their depth could still be a major advantage in the postseason.
“I think it just depends on the team (we’re facing). San Antonio brings different matchup problems than Golden State, than (Oklahoma City),” he said. “If we’re playing Golden State and they go small, than maybe we’ll go small. If we’re battling with San Antonio, we need D.J. a little bit more to go against Duncan. A lot of it depends on matchups, and I think we’re all mature enough and smart enough to understand that.”
As for their ability to thrive in the half-court, Billups is confident.
“I think myself, I’m kind of a half court player. So is Chris,” Billups said. “You’ve got a guy like Jamal who can get (points) at any time. Blake is really a force on the block now. He’s not just a pick-and-roll guy. You can throw it to him and get some good scoring out of him, and some good production. So I would beg to differ with that. Regular season, of course you’re going to run-and-gun and if nobody stops you, you just keep running. But I think we have the ability to do both.”
Not sure I’m totally buying what Billups is selling. But in the end, the critical guy is in the backcourt, not the frontcourt.
The Clippers are 6-6 without Paul, 31-11 with him. As long as CP3 is healthy going into the postseason – he wasn’t when the Clippers were swept in last year’s conference semifinals against San Antonio – they will have the best point guard in basketball steering the ship. That can’t hurt.
The raw material is there, and assuming Caron Butler and Billups both heal up through the break (both sat Monday in Philly), Negro might finally get a chance to use all of it. –BK