With the finish line approaching, there are still many details left to be ironed out, but a few things have become more clear for the NBA’s four California squads.
The Clippers, once sporting the league’s best record, are now in a dogfight to remain in the West’s coveted top three, avoiding a brutal 4/5 battle with either Denver or Memphis. The Warriors’ swoon appears over, and their playoff-starved fans can comfortably look forward to the playoffs.
The Lakers will be an 8-seed if they’re anything at all.
And meanwhile, Sacramento has a much better chance of keeping the Kings.
Up and down the state of California we go, as we do every Wednesday here at SheridanHoops.com.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (41-31)
They were among the best stories of the season’s first third, hit the skids, and having won six-of-eight seem to have their season back on the rails. Now heading towards the franchise’s first playoff appearance since ’06-’07 (and only the second since ’93-’94), Mark Jackson is trying to make the Warriors believe they can do something impressive once they get there.
It started with Monday’s win over the Lakers. Not that beating L.A. is itself an accomplishment — the outliers this season are the teams that haven’t — but after Jackson was very pointed in his commentary, via ESPNLA’s Dave McMenamin:
“It’s a message that was sent. I wanted my guys to understand that we are the better basketball team. We’ve played 72 games and the survey says that we are the better basketball team. That can’t be debated — through 72 games. We were not going to come into this game on our heels. We respect them and they have guys that will be in the Hall of Fame — I believe they have four of them. That being said, this is a different day it’s a different basketball team. I thought it was important to be aggressive and let the chips fall where they may.”
Later, Jackson added “We are the better basketball team. They are in the rearview mirror.”
The point wasn’t to kick the Lakers while they’re down (though Warriors fans are more than happy to) but reinforce the idea his players shouldn’t be intimidated by any squad’s mystique once the postseason rolls around. They are better than the Lakers, but Jackson understands, too, how easy it is for a young team to be intimidated by laundry. The names on the front of jerseys, as well as those on the back. The top three scorers in Golden State’s rotation — Steph Curry, David Lee, and Klay Thompson — have zero playoff games between them. Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Festus Ezeli are rookies. Even veteran types like Andrew Bogut and Jarrett Jack have combined for a grand total of 11 playoff games.
That’s a lot of inexperience, so you can certainly understand Jackson’s desire to pump them up now. If the Warriors are going to be successful against a high-powered, higher-seeded opponent, they can’t let psychology work against them.
Being better than the Lakers might not have the usual cache this season, but Jackson turned it into a teachable moment for a grizzle free group.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS (36-35)
It wouldn’t be a Lakers update without some sort of injury.
The latest victim in what is playing out like a basketball edition of a Final Destination installment is Metta World Peace, who left Monday’s loss in Oakland with a knee injury diagnosed Tuesday as a lateral meniscus tear in his left knee. How long he’ll be out is yet to be determined, but the answer is very likely measured in weeks, not days, and there aren’t all that many weeks left in the season.
And while World Peace has been erratic offensively, averaging 12.8 points on 40.5 percent shooting and probably leading the league in moments prompting fans to cover their eyes in fear, he’s been a valuable member of the Lakers rotation this year, on both sides of the ball. The Lakers score more when he’s on the floor, and are (not surprisingly) much worse defensively when he’s not.
They’ll continue to score without World Peace’s influence, but for a team already short on quality defenders, the loss could have massive consequences. Already the Lakers put too much pressure on Dwight Howard to clean up every mistake made on the perimeter, and there are plenty. Now, Howard gets that much busier.
Earl Clark, who saw his minutes shrink precipitously in the two games following Pau Gasol’s return from a plantar fascia tear, very likely re-enters the rotation and could see some significant assignments on the defensive side, given his athleticism and versatility. Clark is willing, but nowhere close to World Peace, in terms of effectiveness. Kobe Bryant will see more time as a 3, likely with Mike D’Antoni sticking Steve Blake or Jodie Meeks next to Steve Nash in the backcourt. Antawn Jamison likely gets more minutes, too.
D’Antoni, who had been using World Peace as a power forward in small lineups with decent success, will probably find ways to reconstruct similar lineups. but available options all leave the Lakers worse off defensively. The pressure now ramps up on Gasol, unimpressive in his first two games after returning to the lineup, to produce. It won’t be easy. The combination of Gasol and Howard has been relatively toxic this year, particularly on the defensive end, where Gasol’s ability to guard from the power forward spot has diminished considerably.
The Lakers still control their own destiny insofar as the postseason is concerned, but with only a game of cushion over the Jazz (who own the tiebreaker) and Dallas (who they’ll play at Staples next week) there is little margin for error. Fair to say Tuesday’s news on MWP has eaten into it considerably, the latest in a parade of margin-munching calamities endured by the Lakers this year.
At some point, they’ll encounter one too many.
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