As the Clippers prepare for the playoffs, here are some storylines to watch down the stretch.
It’s no surprise that the Clippers have struggled with injuries this season. Besides Blake Griffin (23), DeAndre Jordan (24) and Eric Bledsoe (23), the Clippers aren’t exactly a young team. Still, they have arguably the deepest roster in the league, so if any team is capable of withstanding a myriad of injuries, it’s this group. With that said, keep an eye on the status of Paul’s knee -- if he’s banged up even a little bit, the Clippers are extremely vulnerable.
The Clippers have a relatively easy schedule down the stretch, playing 15 of their final 26 games at home, where L.A. is 21-5. They face San Antonio twice, Oklahoma City once, Memphis twice, Indiana twice and New York once, but besides those eight games, the rest of their schedule is more or less against subpar teams (they have 13 games against teams currently under .500). Expect the Clippers to head into the playoffs with considerable momentum.
Even when they reeled off their 17-game win streak earlier this season, the Clippers couldn’t separate themselves from the Spurs and Thunder. After suffering a setback with Paul out of the lineup, the Clippers (39-17) find themselves closer to the fourth-place Memphis Grizzlies (34-18) than they do to the first-place Spurs (42-12). Their cupcake schedule will give them some breathing room over the Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets, but do the Clippers have enough in the tank to make a run at a top-two seed? It could determine whether they advance to the conference finals or not.
A point of contention this season has been the topic of who should close games. Vinny Del Negro has publicly stated he prefers the hot hand, but for the most part, the Clippers finish games with Griffin, Paul and Barnes, and then either Crawford or Billups at shooting guard and Odom or Jordan at center. The lineups with Crawford and either big man have crushed opponents, while Billups’ sample size is too small to yet reach a clear analysis of it. Either way, it’ll be interesting to see which lineup gets the nod in crunch time of a vital playoff game.
CP3 for MVP
If not for LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s otherworldly dominance, Paul would likely be the leading MVP candidate. Look no further than his performance at the All-Star Game in Houston to see his control over a glorified pickup game with the game’s best players. The Clippers’ record speaks for itself -- they’re 33-11 with Paul and 6-6 without him. To say they look lost offensively without him would be an understatement. If Paul can lead a late Clipper rally and the team grabs a top-two seed, he’ll have a shot at crashing the presumed two-man party for MVP.
Griffin’s second half improvement
Last season, Griffin’s shooting percentage in the 16-23 feet range improved to 39 percent after the All-Star break. Over the past 20 games, Griffin’s points, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage have dramatically risen, so there’s reason to think he may continue to improve after the All-Star break. In particular, his passing has been impressive of late -- he’s at nearly five assists a night over that stretch.
In most of the Clippers’ losses to lottery bound teams, the central theme has been their inability to defend 3-pointers. According to Grantland’s Zach Lowe (http://www.grantland.com/blog/the-triangle/post/_/id/42920/unit-watch-the-heats-problem-on-defense), only two teams have made the conference finals between 1998-99 and 2010-11 while allowing above-average 3-point attempts and an above-average 3-point shooting percentage. The Clippers do both, ranking 24th in opponent 3-point attempts and 25th in opponent 3-point percentage. The Spurs and Thunder are among the best 3-point shooting teams in the league, so the Clippers will be in serious trouble if they can’t shore up this defensive flaw come playoff time.
Small forward rotation
The emergence of a healthy Grant Hill has brought about an interesting question: How will the wing minutes be dispersed as the rotations tighten? Recently, Del Negro has deployed either Hill or Barnes at power forward to create a smaller, faster second-unit lineup and assure ample minutes for his three small forwards. But when the playoffs roll around, there won’t be as many minutes available. Playing time will likely fluctuate on a game-by-game basis, but there will be instances when someone who is accustomed to playing is relegated to the bench.
A Tribe Called Bench
Which “Tribe Called Bench” will we get for the rest of the season? After captivating the league for almost half the season, things have cooled down substantially. Replacing Ronny Turiaf with Ryan Hollins hasn’t been beneficial; the original bench lineup has a +11.3 net rating with Turiaf, and a -1.1 net rating with Hollins. The new small ball lineup (Odom, Hill, Barnes, Crawford, Bledsoe) has been even worse, posting an anemic -13.0 net rating. It remains to be seen if the group can regain its mojo. But if the Clippers keep winning, does it matter?
Stats for this piece are from ESPN.com, HoopData.com and NBA.com.