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NBA Saturday: Chris Paul, Clippers Peaking at the Right Time

The Los Angeles Clippers are playing at a high level with less than a month before the start of the playoffs

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Stuck in the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff race for most of this season, the Los Angeles Clippers are considered by many fans and analysts to be a fringe contender at best.

It’s not hard to understand why, either. This is Chris Paul’s fourth season with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and second season under head coach Doc Rivers. Donald Sterling was removed as the team’s owner and replaced by the energetic and deep-pocketed Steve Ballmer. Spencer Hawes was added last offseason to be the first big off the bench and spread the court with his shooting. J.J. Redick and Matt Barnes entered this season healthy after struggling with injuries throughout last season. The excuses of past seasons were gone. This was supposed to be the Clippers’ season to graduate from the league’s best aerial attack to true championship contender.

But instead of taking a significant step forward this season, the Clippers currently stand at 48-25, good for the fifth seed in the Western Conference. At this point, the Clippers would need to win at least eight of their nine remaining regular season games just to match their record from the 2012-13 campaign, which was their last season under former head coach Vinny Del Negro. Couple this less than stellar regular season record with the memory of their recent playoff failures (especially their meltdown in Game 5 of last season’s Western Conference Semifinals against the Oklahoma City Thunder) and it becomes clear why this team is not considered to be in the same tier as the Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks or Cleveland Cavaliers.

But with the playoffs set to begin in less than a month, maybe it’s time to reassess this viewpoint. First, consider that since the All-Star break, the Clippers have the third-best defensive rating in the league, holding opponents to 99.1 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. On the season, the Clippers are just eighteenth in defensive rating (103.0 points per 100 possesions), which certainly must be kept in mind. But if playing well entering the playoffs means more than overall record, then the Clippers are arguably emerging as one of the bigger threats to make a deep postseason run, even in the loaded Western Conference. In fact, the only other teams with a top 10 offensive and defensive efficiency rating since the All-Star break are the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.

Next, consider that the Clippers are climbing the Western Conference standings and are in a position to rise as high as the second seed. The Clippers are 8-2 over their last 10 games and are now just two games behind the Memphis Grizzlies in the loss column. The Clippers’ remaining opponents include the Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets (twice), Los Angeles Lakers (twice in a row), Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns. Among these seven teams, only four have winning records and the Trail Blazers, Grizzlies and Suns are all just 5-5 in their last 10 games.

It’s highly unlikely that the Clippers run the table to close out the season, but they are aware of the opportunity to climb the standings (as evidenced by their recent 31 and 21 point victories over the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers). If the Clippers did manage to secure the second seed, they would likely face the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, which is about as good of a matchup as they could hope for at this point, and would prevent them from facing the Golden State Warriors until the Western Conference Finals (assuming both teams advance that far). And if the Clippers don’t climb up to the second seed, they could still have home court against the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, which is a decent matchup for them, especially without Wesley Matthews in uniform (due to an unfortunate Achilles tear he suffered earlier this season).

Beyond seeding, the Clippers are simply playing at a high level right now. One of the most impressive aspects about the Clippers’ improved play since the All-Star break is that Blake Griffin was sidelined for over a month after undergoing surgery to remove a staph infection in his elbow. In his absence, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick each stepped up and haven’t slowed down since his return.

Paul is averaging 21.9 points, 11.3 assists, four rebounds and is shooting 39.2 percent from three-point range since the All-Star break. In addition, he was named the Western Conference player of the week after averaging 26 points, 11.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds and two steals in four games from March 16-22.

Paul stepped up for the Clippers the way Griffin did last season when Paul went down with a shoulder injury. With Paul sidelined, Griffin catapulted himself into the MVP race last season with Kevin Durant and LeBron James, finishing a distant third. But with so much competition for this year’s MVP race, Paul is not in the discussion the way Griffin was last season. Nevertheless, Paul is playing for a championship and insists that is what he wants more than anything else, including league MVP honors.

DeAndre Jordan is also playing at a high level. He currently leads the league in rebounds per game (14.8) and field goal percentage (71.1) and is second in total blocked shots (164). After last night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Jordan has now grabbed 20 or more rebounds in 10 games this season. In addition, if the season ended today, Jordan’s overall field goal percentage would rank second all time, just behind Wilt Chamberlain, who shot 72.7 percent from the field in the 1972-73 season.

Additionally, J.J. Redick is shooting the ball almost as well as anyone in the league right now and is arguably the key to the Clippers’ high-powered offense. Since the All-Star break, Redick is averaging 19.4 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists and is shooting 41.4 percent from beyond-the-arc. Redick continues to provide explosive first quarter scoring, as well as constant off-ball movement and floor spacing, which opens up lanes to the basket for his teammates. Redick struggled with injuries all last season and was limited in the playoffs. If he continues to play at this level, he will be a big difference maker for the Clippers, especially with Jamal Crawford sidelined with a deep muscle bruise in his calf.

Also, not many people have noticed that Matt Barnes is having a surprisingly solid season after starting the year ice cold from the field. In fact, Barnes is now ranked 17th in the league in True Shooting percentage* (59.1) and is shooting a career-high 38.3 percent from three-point range. To get this kind of efficient production from Barnes is huge for the Clippers, considering that small forward is one of their weakest positions, with just Jordan Hamilton and Hedo Turkoglu as backups. At age 35, Barnes is still far and away the Clippers’ best defensive wing-player, which may be a problem for the Clippers in the postseason. Barnes isn’t as spry as he was earlier in his career, but he is still a tough competitor and will make life hard on whoever he matches up against on any given night.

* DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick are also in the top 20 in True Shooting percentage this season.

And then there is Blake Griffin, who returned to the court on March 15 against the Houston Rockets. In the seven games since his return, Griffin is averaging 16.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 5.3 rebounds per game. Griffin’s scoring is down, but his rebounding and assists are right at his season average (though his per game rebounding is at a career low this season). Griffin has admitted that he is not 100 percent healthy and is still working himself back into game shape.

But perhaps the time off will help Griffin moving forward. In past seasons, Griffin was banged up entering the playoffs and even mentioned in this piece how his excessive dunking and reliance on his athleticism left him exhausted towards the end of past seasons. With over a month off, Griffin is set to enter this postseason fresher than in past years, which could pay off for the Clippers in a major way.

The problems for the Clippers are still apparent, however. Jamal Crawford remains sidelined with a deep muscle bruise in his calf, and a return date is still uncertain. His scoring off the bench is invaluable for the Clippers, as is his ability to handle the ball, which allows Paul to play off the ball at times. If he is not able to return close to 100 percent for the playoffs, the Clippers will be woefully thin in the second unit, which has struggled all season.

Austin Rivers, Glen “Big Baby” Davis, Hedo Turkoglu and Spencer Hawes round out the bench unit and while each is capable of contributing on any given night, none of them does so consistently. The good news for the Clippers is that in the postseason, teams are able to rely on their starters more since there are no back-to-back games. In fact, last season, Crawford was the only bench player to average more than 20 minutes per game in the postseason for the Clippers. Darren Collison came in second at 17.8 minutes per game.

This is especially significant for the Clippers since among the five-man lineups that have played 400 or more minutes this season, the Clippers’ starting unit ranks third in overall net rating (17.2), just behind the Cleveland Cavaliers’ starting unit (20.2) and the Golden State Warriors’ (18.7). These starting units are in a class of their own and their impact will be magnified in the postseason as each team’s starters play heavier minutes.

All of this is to say that the Clippers are in a position to surprise their critics this postseason. They are not the favorites to win the championship and it will be close to a miracle if they can actually make it out of the West, considering how strong the competition is.

But there is a big gap that exists between our collective perception of this team and reality. The reality is that the Clippers, in spite of their obvious flaws, are peaking at the right time and are in a good position to make a deep postseason run. They may suffer an early postseason exit again this season, but at this point, they have as good of a shot as just about any team not named the Golden State Warriors of emerging out of the West.

 

All statistics are courtesy of www.basketball-reference.com and NBA.com/stats and are current as of March 28. 

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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