Should the Clippers lose their most important game of the year?
As the NBA’s regular season winds down and the calendar flips over to April, teams have a bit of a better understanding of where they’ll be seeded and who their first round matchup will be. That isn’t really the case for the 2018-19 season.
Only four or five games remain for most teams and the entire Western Conference is still undecided. Eight teams have officially clinched a spot, but no team is close to locking into a specific seed yet.
As of April 2nd:
- The Golden State Warriors (52-24) and Denver Nuggets (51-25) are separated by just one game for the 1/2 seeds.
- The Houston Rockets (49-28) and Portland Trail Blazers (49-28) are tied for the 3/4 seeds.
- The Utah Jazz (47-30) and L.A. Clippers (47-31) are essentially tied for the 5/6 seeds.
- The San Antonio Spurs (44-33) and Oklahoma City Thunder (44-33) are tied for the 7/8 seeds.
For the Clippers, there is no clear opponent; they could face the Warriors, Nuggets, Rockets, or Blazers. There is, however, a clear opponent everyone wants to avoid in the two-time NBA Champions. As of right now, it appears the Clippers will see either the Rockets or Blazers in the first round. The Rockets would provide a much tougher challenge than the shorthanded Blazers, but could still be taken down thanks to the Clippers’ depth and coaching wizardry displayed by Doc Rivers this season.
Based on some of the chatter, the Clippers view the inexperienced Nuggets as a very beatable first-round opponent. None of their core outside of Paul Millsap has ever been to the playoffs, and they’ve had their struggles defensively over the last several weeks.
If we’re being honest with ourselves here, the Warriors are the most dangerous team and should be heavy favorites to win the NBA title once again. Personally, I don’t buy into any of the talks that they’re ‘vulnerable,’ regardless of any reported issues they’re dealing with. The Warriors are the best team in a seven-game series until someone takes them down.
It’s unclear where Golden State will finish right now, but they appear poised for the West’s top spot. They currently have a one-game lead over Denver and hold the tiebreaker with them. That said, the goal if you’re any team in the playoffs should be to avoid them for as long as possible. Strategically speaking for the Clippers, that means grabbing either the sixth or the seventh seed. A second round matchup will feature the winners of the 1-8 matchup and 4-5 matchup in the top half. The winners of the 3-6 matchup and 2-7 matchup will meet in the bottom half of the bracket. A six or seven seed, supposing you’re able to get past the first round, will allow a team to avoid the number one seeded team until the Conference Finals.
The Spurs and Thunder have both lost games that they probably shouldn’t have. San Antonio recently dropped games to the Heat, Hornets, and Kings. The Thunder have lost seven of their last nine, including games to the Heat, Grizzlies, and shorthanded Mavs.
If everything remains as is, would the Clippers be better off losing their final game to the Jazz? There’s no doubt that the Blazers are a better matchup for L.A. than the Rockets, and defeating Houston on Wednesday night would get them a step closer to a matchup against Portland.
To grab the three seed, Portland would have to take care of its own business and win as many of their final five games as possible. They’ll see the shorthanded Grizzlies, Nuggets (twice), shorthanded Lakers, and Kings. It wouldn’t be a stretch to predict wins over the Grizzlies and Lakers, who are resting key players down the stretch. The key will be the home-and-home series with Denver.
Houston’s final five games of the season will be against the Kings, Clippers, Knicks, Suns, and Thunder. The way James Harden has been playing, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them win at least four games. The good news for Portland is that they own the tiebreaker with the Rockets after winning the season-series 2-1.
While matchups are important, you won’t get a matchup preference out of Patrick Beverley.
“We don’t care,” said Beverley after the Clippers clinched a playoff spot. “We’re playing at a high level right now. We’re moving the ball, it’s fun, and we’re defending. We don’t give a shit who we play.”
Ivica Zubac, on the other hand, has studied playoff team schedules, and expects to know exactly who the Clippers will face with a win or a loss to the Jazz.
“That’s gonna be big time,” Zubac said, fully knowing what’s at stake. “Make or break. We’ve got almost the same record and that’s gonna be a big game for both teams, especially for the seeding. Before that game, we’re gonna know who we are going to play if we win and who we are going to play if we lose, so it’s gonna be a big game. That’s what we like. We like challenges and I’m sure we’re gonna come out ready to fight.”
“You don’t know where you’re going to end up,” said Doc Rivers before the Clippers’ last game. “You just know that if you keep winning… I know that if we win them all, I don’t think we’ll be the 8th or 7th seed. I don’t think there’s an easy way out though. The West is tough. There’s no easy road. Its not like you hope you get set in the midwest bracket. You’re gonna be in the West no matter what so I don’t know if theres an easy opponent out there for anybody.
“I always look at it the opposite way. The top 4 teams looking down on us all going, ‘I want them,’ or, ‘I want those guy.’ I don’t think they’re doing that either. I guess Golden State, probably, is looking at the other 15 teams and going, ‘we can beat all of those guys,’ but I don’t think the 15 teams are.
“I think it’s going to be a hard playoffs for everyone in the West and the East for that matter. But I don’t pay much attention to that side, but that’s what I’m assuming.”
The Clippers are focused on winning every single game down the stretch. Any decision to win or lose against the Jazz is incredibly dependent on what happens everywhere else around the NBA in the next eight days. To start, however, L.A.’s game against Houston on Wednesday night is a ‘must-win’ to give Portland a little more breathing room in the standings. Even then, that might not be enough.
This really is the Wild, Wild West.