And the Kings? Well, surely they’re up to something.
Can the Warriors hold on and avoid a first-round date with San Antonio or Oklahoma City? Can the Lakers climb high enough to do the same? Can the Clippers restore a little confidence and hold on to the three seed?
This week went a long way towards answering those questions.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (46-22)
Heading into Tuesday’s game against the Kings in Sacramento, the Clippers had won 11-of-15. Still, the questions about their playoff viability snuck in, because all four losses came to Western Conference contenders: San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Denver and – most recently – Memphis at home last Wednesday. No real crimes in any (Denver was on the road on the wrong end of a back to back, for example, scenarios in which the Nuggets are eleventybillion-and-0 over the last five seasons).
But against the Grizzlies, the Clips had no answers for Marc Gasol, who hit 10 of his 14 shots, or Mike Conley (17 points, 11 assists) but probably more significantly couldn’t find any way to score. Stuck on the perimeter most of the evening as the Grizzlies stifled L.A.’s pick-and-roll game, the Clippers couldn’t generate offense inside – no real surprise, there, given the options — and instead launched 26 3-pointers, making just six.
A cold night, maybe, but one forcing tough questions about the viability of their half-court offense against elite competition. One way to avoid part of that problem, at least for a round, would be to finish third in the conference.
Regarding that important piece of playoff real estate, the Clippers made things much harder for themselves with a catastrophic fourth-quarter collapse Tuesday night. With 11:17 remaining, Jamal Crawford canned a 24-footer, giving the Clips an eight-point lead. From there, the Kings outscored L.A. 38-15.
If the Grizzlies game pointed to one weakness of the Clippers, Tuesday pointed to another. The
backbreaking stretch came between the 3:26 and 1:40 marks, when the Kings canned four 3-pointers – three from Toney Douglas and one from Marcus Thornton – a path to defeat Clippers fans recognized instantly. This is, after all, a team sporting the NBA’s fourth-worst opponent’s 3-point percentage. When the Clippers lose, typically 3-balls have something to do with it.
The loss was a crushing blow to the team’s attempts to hold that 3-seed, particularly since it came maybe two hours after the Nuggets went into Oklahoma City and spanked the Thunder. It was Denver’s 13th straight win, and with it the Nuggets moved into what amounts to a three-way dead heat for third in the West with the Clippers and Grizzlies.
The winner of the three-seed derby gets – today at least – home court advantage and the Golden State Warriors. No patsy, but no powerhouse, either. The loser? A five-seed and probably a first-round exit. (Technically, as Pacific Division champs, the Clippers can’t drop below fourth but can lose home court in a 4-5 series. So practically speaking, they’d be a five.)