I can’t help but get excited for this game.
Yes, the Warriors are an absolutely dominant tidal wave. A team set to chase 70 wins with a first year head coach and three of its starting five 25 years or younger. A team that somehow manages to juuuust miss the mark for leading the league in BOTH offensive and defensive efficiency while playing at a breakneck pace and jacking up the most triples outside of Portland and Space City. And, best of all, a team that somehow manages to maintain its lovable, underdog personality as it ghostrides through the rest of the league.
The Clippers? This is the Clippers.
Outside of Harden’s endless parade to the free throw line there really isn’t a team in the NBA that is disliked more than the Los Angeles Clippers. Hell “Clippers Complaining” jumps up on youtube as soon as you put in that second C and there’s pretty much a team photo album if you decide to go through Google Images instead. These guys lead the league in technical fouls, ridiculous flops, and just generally pissing off any referee who has had to officiate their games. Their petulance has led to team meetings, certain officials telling Doc Rivers they won’t speak to him (!!), and a feeling, not only among fans or opposing players, but also among other league executives (!!!!) that the Clippers are one moody, spoiled meltdown away from blowing up the Lob City era and starting over.
I say “bring it on”.
There’s been a good deal made recently about how the Western Conference playoff picture may not actually be the nursery-burning, puppy-burning nightmare we were all anticipating about halfway through the season. A lot of that is injuries, plain and simple, which has given some good credence to the argument circulating about lengthening the NBA season to avoid as many back-to-backs. But, yeah. Kevin Durant is gone for the season. Wesley Matthews is done as well, leaving the Trailblazers without their best perimeter defender and spot-up shooter. Dwight Howard is just starting to return to meaningful minutes in Houston, possibly crashing Harden’s MVP campaign. The Grizzlies have just looked straight weird as of late. Monta Ellis is on crutches. And so, for many sports analysts the field has been narrowed to two teams: the impossibly fun Golden State Warriors and the impossible to count them out San Antonio Spurs.
The argument against the Clippers crashing the Finals (or even the Conference Finals) has traditionally little to do with their obnoxiousness. It’s their bench.
Looking at the Los Angeles roster is a fun exercise in “Who’s Who?” as soon as you get past that starting unit. I remember Hedo Turkoglu playing, maybe? Ekpe Udoh plays defense? Lester Hudson?? I don’t know man. This is a team where the coach’s son plays backup PG and where the frontcourt guys are known more for their ridiculous antics than for anything they might do on the basketball court. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. During a few minutes goofing off today at work on Bleacher Report I learned that the Clippers are outscored by a woeful 10.3 pointers per 100 possessions when Spencer Hawes is out there “stretching the floor”. Go back to that Big Baby quote. “The second unit played like s***. We played like s***.” Can’t really say it much better than that.
Of course the guy not mentioned in the paragraph above is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year and silky smooth Jamal Crawford. Crawford bruised his right calf on March 9th, an injury that was apparently so bad he was taken away on a cart (an image that I kind of wanted to see, but then decided it would probably be too sad to look around for). Although Doc Rivers just went on the record (THANKS AGAIN BLEACHER REPORT) saying that he thought Crawford would be back to play a couple of games before the playoffs began, how effective he will be is going to be huge for any LA postseason success. With him they have a secondary ball handler and shot creator to spell Chris or Blake and make sure the offense doesn’t suffer too much, without Rivers needing to go really more than 7 or 8 deep.
Without him? Well first, and most importantly, this is still a team that can boast three legitimate superstars, which is more than most of the teams in the West can claim. Yes being able to rest those guys for a few minutes every game is big, but this is the playoffs. Your rotations shrink so your starters can play more minutes and ultimately decide the outcome of the games.
Remember when I said before that the Warriors were juuuuust missing the mark for the league’s best offense AND defense? That’s because they’re trailing the Clippers in one of those categories, trailing the Lob City boys by a massive .1! A lot of that has to do with the Clippers’ much-improved shooting from beyond the arc; Matt Barnes is putting up a career best 38% while JJ Redick has been healthy for much of the season as was not the case last year. However, even more impressive than this team’s league leading offense (because, oh yeah, they also did that last year) is how they fared in the games Blake Griffin missed due to staph infection (sorry for that).
Also impressive, and perhaps more unexpected, is how the team’s defense has been playing recently. The Clippers have the 3rd best defense in the league since February 1st (probably coinciding with the time in which Doc Rivers has been praising Deandre Jordan as the Defensive Player of the Year). Jordan has been averaging a ridiculous 12 points and 17.5 rebounds during that time and basically making every person feel physically inadequate about their body during that span (Why must all highlights come against the ‘Bockers?). Griffin has also managed to fit into the lineup pretty seamlessly since his return, ending any halfhearted argument against this team being able to play better without he and Jordan clogging up the paint.
But Chris Paul though! Brutally overlooked this year, like most years, in the MVP race, CP3 has quietly been putting together another stellar season. Kirk Goldsberry at Grantland put together this excellent article on Paul’s perimeter defense and how the diminutive floor general can make life miserable for even the league’s best guards; my favorite comparison was saying moving Paul was like trying to kick over a fire hydrant. Hell, this guy even gave up a foot to defend Kevin Durant in the playoffs last year
But again, Chris Paul though! Other than Mike Conley, I can’t think of another point guard who does so much to help his team on both sides of the court. CP3 leads the league in assists yet again, pretty much a given now that Rondo is firmly in the downswing of his career. He knows where best to set up his teammates and takes his time, probing the defense with his crabbish, butt-out dribble. He knows when to push in transition, he owns the midrange jumper, his 3 point percentage is up this season. I MEAN C’MON!! (you can tell I like him).
Well you know what? I say he uses this as motivation. I say he doesn’t let this happen again. Because while everyone is beyond tired of the Clippers, and while everyone is writing off Chris Paul, I say these guys have an outside shot to crash the party come June.
Just tune into that Golden State game if you don’t believe me.