LOS ANGELES — For the first time in franchise history, the Los Angeles Clippers locked in the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. Led by Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Lou Williams, the Clippers will now take on Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs.
The Clippers and Mavs appeared to be the only predictable matchup in the Western Conference heading into the Orlando bubble, but it took a few extra games to set it in stone. A 124-111 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night sealed both teams’ positions as the No. 2 and 3 seeds, respectively.
After the game, however, there wasn’t as much made about securing the second spot, which ensures a matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals should both teams make it that far.
“It’s funny, I didn’t mention that we secured the 2-seed,” Rivers said. “I don’t think anybody in the locker room talked about it. We really don’t care. Like, we want to win it all. We got to improve as a team. We know that. We have work to do, but we’re going to the playoffs with that mindset. That’s the only thing that matters right now for us.”
This Clippers team was built for the playoffs, and although the path to this moment couldn’t possibly have been envisioned by anyone, it’s one they’ll take in stride and continue to make the best of. Now, a two-time NBA Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard, a championship head coach in Doc Rivers, a two-way star in Paul George, and a supporting cast of guys who are perfect in their roles shift their focus to one team: the Mavs.
LA beat Dallas in all three matchups this season by an average of 11 points, including a 126-111 victory in the Orlando bubble. Luka Doncic averaged 29.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 7.0 assists in the head-to-head matchups, but shot just 42.6 percent from the field and turned the ball over five times a game.
Despite his shooting struggles, the Clippers know Doncic is going to be a handful to deal with in what will be his first taste of the NBA postseason.
“Luka is going to be a handful,” Lou Williams assured. “Dallas plays extremely hard. We just saw these guys last week. [They’re a] well-coached team. When they’re on the court, they’re all going to play hard. For us, we just got to be on the same accord like you just mentioned. I feel really good about that matchup. It will be highly entertaining, a lot of talented guys on the floor. I think the team that plays the hardest is going to win the series.”
Luka Doncic continued to impress inside the bubble, averaging a 32-point, 11-rebound, 11-assist triple-double through seven seeding games. Even defensive-minded superstars like Leonard and George know they’re in for a challenging series when it comes to stopping Doncic.
“Luka is just a pure player, all-around player,” Paul George said after beating the Mavs in Orlando. “He can shoot it, pass it, he rebounds. He just does everything at a high level. It’s a guy that you have to game plan around. I mean, you see it tonight, how he just constantly put pressure on us.But I think this team, we have so many defenders, we got so many guys, it’s just tough over a full game where you have to go through defender after defender. At some point you get worn down. He ended up with a big stat line tonight. I think we made it as tough as possible for him.”
“He’s the head of the snake over there,” Leonard added of Doncic back in December. “He’s playing great. Getting his teammates involved, making shots, just playing competitive basketball, and they’re winning.”
The X-factor in this series may just be Kristaps Porzingis. The Latvian big man was able to put up respective averages of 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds in three matchups, but shot just 34.7 percent from the field. In bubble play, however, Porzingis has been an animal. The Latvian big man is sixth in the league in scoring, averaging 30.5 points and 9.5 rebounds on 47.6 percent shooting.
With the playoffs right around the corner and every team inside the bubble, teams have already been heavily scouted. There shouldn’t be any surprises or secrets in these playoffs. At least Doc Rivers doesn’t think there will be.
“This league is so scouted, and it’s really scouted now since we’re all here,” Rivers relayed. “There’s not a lot of secrets. I’m positive they know that Kawhi’s really good and Paul George is really good, and Lou can score. And we know all about Doncic and Porzingis and Seth Curry and all the other guys, so there’s not a lot of secrets.”
On either Monday, the Clippers will begin the journey they’ve been preparing since last July 5, when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George joined the team. It won’t be an easy one, and it might just take defeating some historically great teams, but they’ve got a legitimate chance to walk out of the bubble as NBA champions.
“I feel really good about our opportunity,” Lou Williams admitted. “I think we’re a highly talented team. I think the only thing that can stop us really is the effort we put forth out on the floor, how much we play together. Meshing is important to us, everybody being on the same accord on the offensive and defensive end.”
First things first. The Clippers will need their full complement of players available for the playoff run. Patrick Beverley has been nursing a calf strain for over a week now, Landry Shamet is dealing with a left foot sprain, and Montrezl Harrell is completing his quarantine period before he rejoins the team.
“No. 1 is just getting everybody here,” Kawhi Leonard replied when asked what the team needs to do now that they know who they’re playing. “Then, just building habits pretty much. Just talking, making sure we’re covering each other, playing as a team on both ends of the floor. That’s pretty much it. Just trying to build habits, make less mistakes as we move forward.”
Considering the starpower and depth on this team, when healthy, Lou Williams said it best to close out his press conference.
“We probably are going to be our own worst enemies when it comes down to it. We feel like we are in control of our destiny. If everybody locks in, get on the same page, I really like our opportunity [to win it all].”
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