The Clippers will end the season the way they started it, with a brutal schedule of opponents. In the next 8 games, they play Dallas, Phoenix (road), OKC, Memphis (road), OKC (road), Houston (road), Dallas (road) and Memphis. Of all those opponents, only one is under .500, the Phoenix Suns (36-37). The whole schedule combined has, currently, a .599 winning percentage and the three best teams (Dallas at 52-21, OKC 49-24 and Memphis 41-33) the Clippers have to play twice.
Two of their last three home games will happen this week, tonight against the Dallas Mavericks and Saturday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are two of the toughest teams in the league. Both have at least twice as many wins as losses and have MVP caliber players enjoying great seasons (Nowitzki, Durant and Westbrook), so the Clippers will test their mettle against these teams.
Tonight’s match-up, the Mavericks, remain the lone elite team in the West that the Clippers have not upset this year. They’ve nipped the Spurs, the Lakers, the Thunder, the Nuggets (with and without Carmelo) and the Hornets (when they were elite) in the West as well as the Celtics (on the road), the Bulls (on the road), and the Heat in the East. The Mavs have matched up very well against the Clippers and they also sport the best road record in the league (26-10), so the Clippers will have their hands full.
This season has had a lot to do with progression, after all, if a team is not good, the next best thing is if they show legitimate signs of progress (let’s not use hope due to Roeser’s recent comments). This year started with a bloodsucking 1-13 streak that drained the team of any hope to win now. But they improved with those aforementioned big wins, they started to win at home against quality opponents (like the Heat and Lakers) and finished with a 9-5 record in the month when they feasted on home cooking. February was the month of the road game, and while the expected improvement didn’t show (largely due to Eric Gordon’s absence), the Clippers have turned it back around in March. If the Clippers win tonight, they’ll match that 9-5 monthly record of January, having won almost as many games on the road as they played in that first month (three road wins to 4 road games played in January, the Clippers lost all four January road games). A win over the Mavs would give the Clippers a boost of quality wins comparable to January, when they seemed so hot. Wins over Dallas and the Celtics (on the road) might not be as sexy as wins over the Lakers and the Heat (after the heat had won 21 of 22 games), but they’re still equal quality opponents and they had a .500 record on the road. So what’s the next step in the progression? Beating a succession of quality teams, some on the road. That stretch starts tonight for the Clips.
Bonus, David Thorpe breaks down the improvement of rookies across the league. Here’s what he says about two Clippers:
Blake Griffin, Clippers
Griffin’s numbers have dropped a bit recently, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t improved. Quite the contrary. To continue to rack up 20-and-12 performances is even harder to accomplish now that he’s drawing so much more attention from opponents.
Taking into account where he was a year ago — recovering from a serious knee injury — makes his progress even more impressive. It often takes players a full year to recover mentally from any kind of injury involving their lower extremities. And let’s be honest, not even the most passionate Clippers fan expected Griffin to be an NBA superstar in his rookie season.
If Griffin makes a jump next season like he did this season, you’ll hear MVP chants in L.A. — and not for a certain shooting guard on the Lakers.
Eric Bledsoe, Clippers
Bledsoe looked like a steal back in July thanks to his incredible athleticism and powerful body. But he was far from ready to be an NBA point guard. Although he still has to get much better if he wants the reins to Griffin’s team next season and beyond, he is showing serious improvement in running the show.
Bledsoe looked good early on when he was getting lots of playing time and has continued to read the game better even when his minutes dropped. Explosive off the dribble, he is better now at picking his spots: Blowing past his man only to run into trouble in the paint has become less of an issue.
Double bonus, news that the Elgin Baylor suit has gone the way of Michael Olowokandi’s NBA career.
Keys to the Game
– Blake Griffin. The Dallas Mavericks give Blake fits. In the Clippers two losses, he has averaged 18 points on 35 percent shooting and 10 rebounds, well below his season averaged of 22.4 points and 12 rebounds on 50 percent shooting. The Mavericks throw their length at Blake, Tyson Chandler, Brendan Haywood and even Dirk Nowitzki have given Blake plenty of problems. This, of course, comes when he also has to guard Dirk Nowitzki, the most versatile power forward in the game. The last los was relatively close,112-105, so an on-point Blake Griffin could mean a win.
– Outside shooting. Under Dwayne Casey, the Dallas Mavericks employ a very aggressive and oft-used zone defense. To break that zone, the Clippers have to make their long balls, whether that’s from Eric Gordon, Mo Williams or Randy Foye (even if Foye’s toe is on the line).
– Bench play. The Clippers aren’t known for their deep bench, and with Eric Bledsoe, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ike Diogu, Brian Cook, Craig Smith and DeAndre Jordan, you’re not looking at a group of offensive weapons. Bledsoe, Ike and Craig are the best at creating their own shot, but the unit isn’t very balanced from a perimeter shooting perspective, which could give them fits when facing the Dallas zone defense. Oppositely, the Mavericks have a very good bench, anchored by supersub stalwart, Jason Terry. They have averaged 46.5 points from the bench (bolstered by last games 53 point combo of Jason Terry and Jose Juan Barea), which will have to come down for the Clippers to win.