With only a couple of weeks until the end of the regular season, the Los Angeles Clippers are holding on to the third seed in the Western Conference. The team won its first Game 7 two years ago, and last year marked the first division title in franchise history, but anything short of a conference finals appearance would be a disappointment.
That said, the Western Conference is as stacked as ever. There is a distant possibility that a team could win 50 games and miss the playoffs! And while the West’s division leaders (San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles) shouldn’t be scared going into the postseason, there is also a distinct potential for upset in the first round. This is just to say that the watch is out for every team that punches a playoff ticket.
The road through the playoffs is a different travail than the road to the playoffs, and the Clippers should be keeping an eye on the standings, not for their own relatively secure placement, but to gauge the ideal first round matchup. The West’s bottom-four playoff teams will vary in style, but they will all be good. And those styles all bring unique brands of upset potential.
With only four games separating the fifth through ninth seed in the loss column, here is my first round matchup overview for the Clippers, from most ideal to least:
Sans the weary affair last night, the Mavericks haven’t been able to do much with the Clippers late in games. In the first three matchups of the season, Dallas had leads of seven, 17 and 11 in the final period. The Clippers came back to win all three. Heck, the Mavs had an 11 point lead with just over four minutes remaining last night before L.A. cut it to two.
Dallas is an offensive juggernaut, as evidenced by their 109.0 offensive rating, third overall. But their small backcourt and relatively non-athletic frontcourt has been a boost to the Clippers late in those games. The Mavericks allow 106.0 points per 100 possessions overall; that number skyrockets to 114.0 points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarters versus the Clippers, per NBA.com/Stats.
Portland Trail Blazers
Portland has been rolling with one of the best offenses in the league for most of the season, currently fifth in offensive rating at 108.3. This has been maintained by their 3-point shooting (37.3 percent on 25.4 attempts per game) and rebounding (third-best offensive rebound percentage at 28.1 percent).
But like Dallas, Portland won’t offer much resistance defensively. The weakest part of Portland’s defense is their inability to force turnovers, ranking dead last in opponent turnover percentage at 12.3 percent. Portland’s roster has very little playoff experience (and even less playoff success), and while they are young, only Indiana’s starters outpaces the Blazers in minutes played. And like Indiana, Portland hasn’t been as strong since the All-Star break. Their offense was third in offensive efficiency at the All-Star break at 108.7. Since the break A mediocre 13th.
If you’re looking for frenetic, the Suns are one of those run and gun, pace and space teams liable to give opposing defenses fits trying to guard all their shooters. Phoenix is also one of those teams closer to being out than seeing the Clippers in the first round. If they get in, they’ll resemble last year’s Rockets in their approach to the postseason. In other words, Phoenix has exceeded expectations so much that they’ll be playing with house money.
After the December meeting that had the Suns up by as many as 29 points at Staples Center, this looked like a potential trouble team for L.A. However, when former Clipper Eric Bledsoe was sidelined by injury, the Suns struggled to defend the Clippers. In the fourth quarters of the three losses, Phoenix was outscored 86-62. Bledsoe did shore up their defense though, ranking seventh in defensive rating since his return.
Golden State Warriors
This is holding as the current 3-6 matchup in the West, and the projected likeliest. After what went down on Christmas, a NorCal/SoCal showdown could exceed the Grit ‘n Grind rivalry of the past two playoffs. The home team won all four meetings this season, with the December game being the most controversial as well as the only game that was close at the end. Golden State would also be the best defensive squad the Clippers would have to contend with in the opening round (currently fourth in defensive rating), though the shaky health of the Warriors’ frontline could alter things slightly.
Another concern that the Clippers would have against the Warriors? Their complete inability to slow down David Lee. While he needs to be protected defensively by Andrew Bogut, Lee’s scored at least 20 points in each meeting, shooting 58.4 percent from the field in the process. The Warriors pulled off the 3-6 upset last postseason, so there won’t be a novice factor like that for Phoenix or Portland.
The defense of the Memphis Grizzlies has improved significantly as the season progressed, 15th in defensive rating before February 1 and fourth since. And the one area of persistent need seems to have been filled in perimeter shooting. While Los Angeles went 1-2 against the Grizzlies this season, that lone victory came with Marc Gasol out of the lineup.
Memphis is still essentially the slow-bro team they’ve been the past several seasons. But the addition of Mike Miller and Courtney Lee offer a shooting dimension that provides a bit more penalty against teams that load up in the paint against their imposing frontcourt. And while both teams would be confident in beating the other after all their recent encounters, what would loom largest over the Clippers in a third consecutive matchup with the Grizzlies is that it would likely be the most exhausting of any first round series.