With a strong finish going into the All-Star break, including a four game winning streak and 39-17 record, the Clippers now look to finish their last 26 games playing their best basketball. A number one Western Conference seeding is still within reach, the San Antonio Spurs maintaining a 3 1/2 game lead at the top, the Thunder only 1 1/2 games ahead of the Clippers at number two.
The schedule is certainly favorable; the Clippers play 16 of their final 26 at home, with 13 against sub .500 opponents. If they simply go 16-10 the rest of the way, they will finish with a 55-27 record, which would be their best finish since moving to Los Angeles in 1984. This record would probably be sufficient to hang on to their current third place ranking, though if either the Spurs or Thunder falter, the Clippers could easily rise in the standings.
Several factors are working in the Clippers favor, starting with health. For the first time all season, the team is playing with their full roster. Chauncey Billups – outside of Chris Paul – is probably the most important player to rejoin the starting lineup. Aside from being one of the best shooters in the entire league – especially from 3-point range – Billups has been to the playoffs on multiple occasions and has won in the finals. His Detroit team beat a heavily favored Lakers squad in the 2004 finals (led by Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton, and Karl Malone) and Chauncey was named MVP for the series. Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes, and Rony Turiaf have also made trips to the finals with other teams, so the Clippers are sufficiently experienced to withstand the pressures of postseason play. Chris Paul has made it as far as the Western Conference 2nd round, his New Orleans Hornets falling to the eventual champion Lakers in 2008.
Aside from Billups, Chris Paul has returned to full health after a brief knee injury (bone bruise) that saw him sidelined for 12 games, a period during which the Clippers went 6-6. Blake Griffin missed two games due to a strained hamstring, but he was kept out as more of a precautionary measure than serious concern. Caron Butler has been hampered by a sore back, but isn’t expected to miss any more playing time and there are no other current injury issues as of this writing.
Much has been made of the Clippers depth, with multiple skill players sitting in reserve who can come in and contribute enough to hold leads and rest the starters for finishing off games. Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom, Eric Bledsoe, Ryan Hollins, Grant Hill, and Rony Turiaf, often referred to as “A Tribe Called Bench,” or “Lob Deep,” have consistently outperformed their opponents’ backups all season long. Jamal Crawford, in particular, has made a strong argument for 6th Man of the Year with his stellar play. Crawford is averaging 17 points in just under 30 minutes per game and has hit key shots in several games since becoming a Clipper. Matt Barnes, who was recruited by Chris Paul after a pickup game last summer, has been the team’s best surprise, providing a much needed edge with his chippy play and tough defense. Barnes has also been a key scoring threat when the starters are out, hitting 3-pointers at a surprising almost 40% clip. Obviously, rotations will shorten once the playoffs begin, but the Clippers could buck the trend somewhat as they are loaded with quality throughout the entire roster.
Finally, with the trade deadline looming on Thursday, there were rumors that the Clippers might have been involved in talks with the Boston Celtics for Kevin Garnett in exchange for Eric Bledsoe, as well as a possible Bledsoe for Paul Millsap of the Utah Jazz. DeAndre Jordan has also been linked to trade scenarios. The team has since released a statement that Bledsoe is not available (while Jordan is Blake Griffin’s best friend) and it is expected that the Clippers will make no moves at the deadline. Chris Paul makes much of the team’s chemistry and trading a key piece at this late stage could be counter productive and harm the bond they’ve worked so hard to establish.
The Clippers will get their first test on Thursday against the San Antonio Spurs…
Tags: Blake Griffin Caron Butler Chauncey Billups Chris Paul DeAndre Jordan Eric Bledsoe Grant Hill Jamal Crawford LA Clippers Lamar Odom Lob City Los Angeles Clippers Los Angeles Clippers Matt Barnes NBA Ronny Turiaf Vinny Del Negro