The Los Angeles Clippers are hot on the heels of the crosstown Lakers for first place in the NBA’s Pacific Division, trailing only by a half-game and tied in the loss column. On the flip side, though the Clips are currently #4 in the West, they are just two games up on the Memphis Grizzlies for that spot, which means homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs that start next Saturday. Los Angeles is playing well right now—extremely well in fact, having taken 13 of their last 15, so today they get the up-close look from TheSportsNotebook as we continue to prepare for the NBA playoffs.
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are the names that come to mind when you think of the Clippers, but this is a deep and well-balanced team that can beat you a lot of different ways. Randy Foye is Paul’s running mate in the backcourt and a decent scorer. The depth at the guard positions is impressive, with Mo Williams able to give Paul some quality relief and Nick Young chipping in 15 ppg behind Foye. All four guards are good enough to shoot the trey (i.e., above 35 percent) and Williams hits the 40 percent threshold from behind the arc. Paul distributes the ball as well as any point guard in the NBA, with nine assists per game and also scores 19 a night.
Up front, Griffin is a 20 ppg scorer and hits the glass to the tune of 11 boards per night. DeAndre Jordan is an underrated factor at center, providing quality rebounding help himself and blocking a couple shots per game. Veteran Caron Butler mans the small forward spot and is a double-digit scorer himself. This all adds up to a group that is fifth in the NBA in offensive efficiency and the rebounding prowess of Griffin and Jordan lead the way for a team sixth in that crucial category.
What Los Angeles does not do well—at least by playoff standards—is play good team defense. They only rank 16th in defensive efficiency, meaning their barely playoff-worthy if games were decided strictly on the defensive end. Nonetheless, they have overcome that to play good basketball at a key point in the season and all but secure a playoff berth and possible homecourt in a tough Western Conference. So let’s take a look at the most recent part of that 13-2 stretch, which is the ten games played in April, of which Los Angeles won eight…
April 2: at Dallas (94-75): This marked the sixth win in a row for the franchise’s longest winning streak since 1992. It reminds you that whatever flaws this team has, keep them in perspective. The remnant of non-bandwagon jumpers in the city that stuck with the Clippers have waited a long time to have writers like me pick nits about their weaknesses and measure them by championship standards. And this particular game was a showcase in excellence. The defense was sound. They shot 47 percent. Paul got his ten assists, Griffin his sixteen boards and Foye knocked down 28. All on the road against the defending champs.
April 4: vs LA Lakers (108-113): An annoying loss to the rivals on a neutral floor, since both teams play at The Staples Center. Griffin and Jordan combine for 27 rebounds, but the team defense is lacking. The Lakers shoot 51 percent and get 30-plus from both Kobe and Andrew Bynum.
April 5: at Sacramento (93-85): Sloppy game with 18 turnovers each way, but Foye’s 20 bails out the Clips in a letdown spot.
April 7: vs. Sacramento (109-94): Another game with 36 combined turnovers, close to evenly split. Paul dishes 15 assists, and Foye and Griffin lead the offense in a good inside-outside combo.
April 9: at Memphis (85-94): Ominous bellwether for the first-round playoff matchup that would occur if the season ended today. Los Angeles was beaten badly on the boards, played lousy defense and Griffin was a non-factor.
April 11: at Oklahoma City (100-98): Great bellwether for the second-round playoff matchup if the first round went chalk based on the pairings of today. The Clips play defense and hold Durant to 22, while not letting his supporting cast get untracked. The fast pace accounts for the high score, but the Thunder only shot 40 percent from the floor. Paul showed he can take a game over offensively, eschewing the assists for a 31-point night.
April 12: at Minnesota (95-82): Los Angeles knocks down 12 three-pointers, but I don’t like the fact that a Love-less Timberwolves team is basically even on the glass. But it’s a third road game in four nights, 24 hours after winning in OkC, so let’s cut Griffin and Jordan a break here.
April 14: vs. Golden State (112-104): There is again a lack of rebounding dominance and the excuses have to be tossed. The Clippers win because they’re shooting 54 percent and Golden State is in the middle of a tank job, but if you’re a rebounding team and your opponent is a lousy squad with no motivation and sitting its best inside player (forward David Lee), you have to dominate.
April 16: vs. Oklahoma City (92-77): The Thunder bring out the best in the Clippers, as a tremendous defensive effort holds OkC to 38 percent from the floor. The backup guards, Williams and Young, combine for 30 and Russell Westbrook is held to nine points.
April 18: at Denver (104-98): Both teams shot the ball very well, but Los Angeles lit it up behind the arc, hitting 14-of-24. Williams buried four, for his second straight 19-point game, and Butler bagged four more.
The Clippers have all the markings of a team that plays to the level of their competition, as you note the great defensive outings in three games against Dallas and Oklahoma City, with the lackluster efforts given against Minnesota and Golden State. That’s not something I like to see from a team in any sport, but in the long gauntlet that is the NBA playoffs, it’s even less acceptable. You have to be in shape mentally to play hard every single night and the importance of defense is going to shoot up exponentially in these coming months. I’m not saying I wouldn’t pick Los Angeles to win a first-round series and I’m not saying they aren’t making some really nice progress as a franchise. But they need something extra in the way of consistent defensive effort to reach championship-level.